Kiev threatens Moscow to break off negotiations if it goes ahead with Kherson independence referendum while Russia continues shelling central and western Ukrainian cities

Ukraine dismisses Russia's unilateral ceasefire in Mariupol as "not providing security"

photo_camera REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO - Emergency crews remove debris from a building destroyed in the course of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine 10 April 2022

The Russian military offensive in Ukraine is now entering its third month, and despite the Kremlin's promise to withdraw its troops to the east and south - where the "big battle" has been expected to break out for more than a week - Moscow has not stopped its attacks in the rest of the country. On Monday alone, the Ukrainian authorities denounced the shelling of five railway stations in the centre and west of the country with the aim of "systematically destroying" the country's critical infrastructure, according to Oleksandr Kamyshin, executive director of the state-owned Ukrainian Railways. 

"The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are continuing the special military operation in Ukraine," the Russian defence ministry confirmed on Monday. The attacks on train stations in the Lviv region, which is a key link between the west, east and south of the country, and the shelling of Vinnitsia (in the centre of the country), Rivne and Poltava, are testimony to this. In all, some 16 passenger trains have been stopped and severely delayed, and, according to the Vinnitsia regional prosecutor's office, at least 18 people have been injured and five killed. 

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The Reuters news agency has also reported statements by the Russian Ministry claiming to have launched a missile attack on an oil refinery in the town of Kremenchuk. "Long-range, high-precision weapons destroyed fuel production facilities at an oil refinery on the outskirts of Kremenchuk, as well as storage facilities for petroleum products feeding Ukrainian troops' military equipment," the agency said.

Meanwhile, in the midst of a conflict whose end seems more distant by the day, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has updated the numbers of people displaced by the conflict. To date, the agency has estimated that some 5.2 million people have been forced to flee the country, and more than 7.7 million have been displaced within Ukraine itself. In addition, according to Irina Venediktova, the country's Prosecutor General, 3,818 civilians have been killed and 4,000 injured, although Venediktova stressed that the figures do not include places such as Kiev or Mariupol, where the death toll is estimated at more than 20,000. 

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"A unilaterally announced corridor does not provide security鈥

However, despite the magnitude of the data, which does not even include the military wounded and killed on either side, humanitarian corridors remain one of the main challenges. This is the case in the city of Mariupol. A strategically vital enclave for Russian troops since the beginning of the conflict. A symbol of the daring Ukrainian resistance since the siege began at the end of February. Despite the dispute over its control, the town has emerged as Putin's brake. Last week, the Russian leader ordered not to attack the Azovstal steelworks in order to avoid greater losses to his troops. 

Thus, on Monday morning, Moscow made public its willingness to guarantee a ceasefire - the first that does not require the surrender of Ukrainian troops - at the Azovstal steelworks. The Kremlin set the evacuation corridor at 14:00 local time and said that civilians could leave "in the direction they choose", said Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, head of the National Defence Control Centre. 

But the Kiev government, far from trusting Russian statements, has rejected the existence of an agreement with Moscow on the evacuation of civilians trapped in Mariupol. "It is important to understand that a humanitarian corridor is opened by agreement of both sides. A unilaterally announced corridor does not provide security and is therefore not a humanitarian corridor," explained Irina Venediktova. The Ukrainian Prosecutor General has requested that "UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres be the initiator and guarantor of the humanitarian corridor from Azovstal" for the evacuation of the soldiers who are holding out at the steelworks and the more than 1,000 civilians who are sheltering with them. 

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Kherson: a forced referendum

Another major point of conflict between Kiev and Moscow is the southeastern city of Kherson, which was one of the first cities to fall into Russian hands. Since then almost half of its inhabitants have left the city, but this has not prevented the Kremlin's Defence Ministry from announcing on Sunday its intention to hold a referendum on independence in Kherson in the first days of May. 

The Ukrainian authorities have denounced Moscow's intention to justify its occupation of the city and establish the land corridor they have been seeking since the beginning of their invasion. A corridor connecting the Donbas with Crimea. Moreover, Kiev fears that the referendum will be held in the same way as the one in Crimea in 2014, when the overwhelming majority in favour of joining Russia aroused strong suspicions about vote rigging. 

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"If they destroy our people in Mariupol and a pseudo-referendum is proclaimed in new pseudo-republics, Ukraine will withdraw from any negotiation process," Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky warned at a press conference. "This would definitely prevent a diplomatic end to the war," he said. But in order for the referendum to retain its legitimacy, Russian troops may be holding back convoys of citizens seeking to leave the city. "A large column of people is trying to leave Kherson to protest against the so-called referendum. The occupants are not letting people leave and are turning them back," a Telegram report on the latest news from the Ukrainian Armed Forces said, according to the Ukrinform agency. 

Meanwhile, the head of the military administration of Kriv贸i Rog - President Zelenski's hometown in the Dnipropetrovsk region - has warned of a possible attack by Russian troops on the town from the city of Kherson

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