By Natalia Zinets and Max Hunder
(Reuters) -Ukraine was trying to evacuate as many trapped civilians as possible on Thursday, warning of a new offensive by Russian forces pounding cities in the east and south of the country.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk announced agreement with Russia on opening 10 safe corridors, mostly in southern and eastern Ukraine, but said residents trying to leave the besieged city of Mariupol would have to use their own vehicles.
Underlining the problems facing civilians, the head of the state railway company said three trains carrying evacuees had been blocked by an air strike on a line near the town of Barvinkove in the eastern region of Kharkiv.
Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have been regrouping for a new offensive, and that Moscow plans to seize as much territory as it can in the eastern part of Ukraine known as Donbas bordering Russia.
“Evacuate! The chances of saving yourself and your family from Russian death are dwindling every day,” said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern region of Luhansk, adding that Russian troops had not made any significant breakthroughs.
Authorities in Dnipro, a city in central-eastern Ukraine also urged women, children and the elderly to leave.
“The situation in the Donbas is gradually heating up, and we understand that April will be rather intense,” Dnipro Mayor Borys Filatov said in an online video address.
Ukrainian Presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovycvh said Russian air attacks were now focused mainly on areas of eastern Ukraine, but added: “The situation is under control.”
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said that although Russia’s focus for now was largely on the east, its long-term objective was to take all Ukraine. A senior military official said Russia was likely to attack the capital Kyiv again if it won full control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
‘PRESSURE ON CIVILIAN POPULATION’
Ukraine’s military says Russia wants to entrench a land passage between two separatist, self-proclaimed people’s republics in Donbas and the southern region of Crimea that Russia seized and annexed in 2014.
Oleh Synyehubov, the governor of Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine, said heavy Russian shelling was intended to “put pressure on the civilian population” and destroy civilian infrastructure.”
Russia denies targeting civilians in a “special military operation” which it says is aimed at demilitarizing and “denazifying” Ukraine. The Kremlin’s position is rejected by Ukraine and the West as a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.
Multiple attempts to agree safe passage for buses to take supplies to Mariupol and bring out civilians have failed since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, with each side blaming the other.
Mayor Vadym Boychenko put the civilian death toll in the port city on the Sea of Azov at about 5,000 over a week ago, and tens of thousands are still trapped without power and with few supplies.
“The remaining more than 100,000 people are praying for rescue – a full-scale evacuation is needed,” Boychenko said on national television.
(Reporting By Natalia Zinets, Editing by Timothy Heritage)