‘Welcome to Hell’: Evacuation in Ukraine halted; Putin warns about no-fly zone; Worries grow about nuclear plant attacks: Live updates – USA TODAY

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The evacuation of Ukrainian civilians from the southeastern city of Mariupol, which has come under heavy fire, has been halted amid reports of continued shelling that violated a cease-fire, the Ukrainian president’s office said Saturday.

The decision to halt the evacuations roughly two hours after the cease-fire began comes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered a rousing speech on video to crowds of demonstrators Friday night in major European cities and Russian forces remain largely stalled in their advance on the capital city of Kyiv.

Zelenskyy urged listeners to rally behind Ukraine in its resistance against Russian invaders, warning them, “if we fall, you fall,” while Secretary of State Antony Blinken is warning that the crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better.

The refugee crisis: More than 1.3 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded. Here is where they’re going.

The Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights is reporting that 32 children were killed and 70 injured since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

In the U.S., former Vice President Mike Pence told Republicans “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin” during an event with the party’s top donors. His comments directly contradict statements made by former President Donald Trump days ago. Trump described Putin as “smart” and “savvy” on the day Russia launched its war against Ukraine.

Latest developments:

► Evacuations of civilians in the strategic port of Mariupol in the southeast have  halted amid reports of continued shelling by Russian troops that violated a cease-fire. Russian state media reported the military would observe a cease-fire in Mariupol and the eastern town of Volnovakha starting Saturday to allow civilians to evacuate.

► The International Organization for Migration says the number of people who have left Ukraine since fighting began has now reached 1.45 million.

► Russian President Vladimir Putin warns West that trying to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be seen as “participation in the armed conflict.”

► Russia’s media regulator announced Friday that it was blocking access to both Facebook and Twitter across the country.

Russia’s unprecedented attack on a nuclear power plant sparked worldwide alarm and astonished and worried experts, who are fearful of what the dangerous move could mean moving forward. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield warned the U.N. Security Council Friday that Russian troops were “20 miles and closing to Ukraine’s second largest nuclear plant.

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Evacuation halted after reports Russia breaks cease-fire agreement

Evacuations have halted from an area of Ukraine where Russian defense officials had previously announced a cease-fire after the city of Mariupol remained under fire, the Ukrainian president’s office said Saturday.

“The Russian side is not holding to the ceasefire and has continued firing on Mariupol itself and on its surrounding area,” said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office. “Talks with the Russian Federation are ongoing regarding setting up a ceasefire and ensuring a safe humanitarian corridor.”

The Mariupol City Council confirmed that attacks were ongoing in a Telegram post Saturday, telling residents to disperse to shelters.

“Due to the fact that the Russian side does not adhere to (the cease fire) and continued shelling both Mariupol itself and its surroundings, for security reasons the evacuation of the population is postponed,” the council wrote. 

The Russian Defense Ministry said earlier in a statement that it had reached an agreement with Ukrainian forces on evacuation routes through the strategic port of Mariupol in the town of Volnovakha to allow civilians to leave “from 10 a.m. Moscow time” (8 a.m. GMT.)

A Mariupol official said the cease-fire was to last until 4 p.m. (2 p.m. GMT) and that evacuations would begin at 11 a.m. (9 a.m. GMT).

– Ella Lee, Associated Press

Putin warns against no-fly zone over Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow would consider any third-party declaration of a no-fly zone over Ukraine as “participation in the armed conflict.”

Speaking at a meeting with female pilots on Saturday, Putin said Russia would view “any move in this direction” as an intervention that “will pose a threat to our service members.”

“That very second, we will view them as participants of the military conflict, and it would not matter what members they are,” the Russian president said.

Zelenskyy has pushed NATO to impose a no-fly zone over his country, warning that “all the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you.”

Both U.S. officials and NATO have said a no-fly zone, which would bar all unauthorized aircraft from flying over Ukraine, could provoke widespread war in Europe with nuclear-armed Russia.

– Associated Press

War has ravaged Mariupol for days

Mariupol became a focal point of the war in Ukraine on Saturday when evacuations were halted after Ukrainian officials reported continued shelling in violation of a cease-fire meant to give civilians enough time to flee.

But for days scenes of grief and terror have gripped the city in southern Ukraine.

A bloodied 6-year-old girl in unicorn pajama pants was rushed to a hospital as her mother wailed. The mother, in a bloodstained knit cap, watched as medics attempted to resuscitate her daughter, trying a defibrillator, an injection, and pumping oxygen.

More: He ‘drove for 12 hours to save us’: One man’s efforts to transport Ukrainian refugees to safety

In a hospital nearby, a father buried his face into his dead 16-year-old’s lifeless head. The teen’s body was draped under a bloodstained sheet after he succumbed to wounds from the shelling of a soccer field where he was playing.

New mothers cradled their newborns in a dimly lit makeshift nursery and bomb shelter in the basement of a Mariupol hospital. Above them, hospital staff rushed to save people who were wounded. A woman cried out as blood streamed from her mouth. A young man was covered in a blue sheet.

“Do I need to say more?” said Oleksandr Balash, head of anesthesiology department. “This is just a boy.”

– Christine Fernando, Associated Press

Blinken: Suffering in Ukraine to get worse

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is warning that the crisis in Ukraine is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Blinken told reporters in Brussels the dire assessment was based on what is already known about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s methods to subjugate another country or region to his will.

“We saw it in Chechnya. We’ve seen it in Syria. We saw it, of course, in 2014 in Ukraine,” said Blinken, who is on a six-day tour of Europe.

More: US and allies look to seize Russian oligarchs’ megayachts among sanctions for Ukraine war

In Ukraine, “what we’re seeing on the battlefield is Russian forces seeking to encircle the major cities, including Kyiv, and we’re seeing them use increasingly brutal methods, including going at civilians and civilian populations,” Blinken said.

“The terrible expectation is that the suffering we’ve already seen is likely to get worse before it gets better for as long as Russia pursues these methods,” Blinken said.

Russia risked a nuclear “catastrophe” with its “reckless” operation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, which was taken over by Russian forces late Thursday, Blinken said. He called on the Kremlin to cease all attacks around Ukrainian nuclear facilities and allow civilian personnel to do their work to ensure the facilities’ safety and security.

In a separate interview with the BBC, Blinken said he still believes Ukraine can win the war with Russia.

“I can’t tell you how long this will go on,” he said. “I can’t tell you how long it will take.”

But, “if it’s the intention of Moscow to try somehow to topple the government and install its own puppet regime, 45 million Ukrainians are going to reject that one way or the other,” he said.

– Michael Collins

‘Welcome to hell’ becomes rallying cry for Ukrainian forces

From spray painted road signs to impassioned speeches, Ukrainians have latched on to the phrase “welcome to hell” as a defiant mantra directed toward Russian invaders.

The latest example: Armed Forces of Ukraine on Saturday shared a video to Twitter purportedly depicting the fiery downfall of a Russian helicopter shot down by Ukrainian forces, goading Russian forces with the phrase.

In Kryvyi Rih, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy’s hometown, the fervent expression was scribbled across a banner on a bridge over the entry road to the city.

And on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, Kyiv, the phrase is painted on a concrete block, a warning sign for Russian troops to come

– Ella Lee

Report: 32 children killed and 70 more injured since invasion began

Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Lyudmila Denisova announced Saturday in an online post that, as of 11 a.m. (9 a.m. GMT), 32 children were killed and 70 injured since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

“Russian troops continue to cynically violate children’s right to life, as enshrined in Article 6 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,” she wrote in the post.

More: Where are the Ukraine protests? Tracking anti-Russia rallies around the globe

Denisova said that of the children killed, two died in “47 shellings of civilian objects” in the Kyiv region, three were killed in the Markhalívka, Fastivsky district of the Kyiv region by Russian shells and five died due to missile and artillery shellings in Kharkiv. In a car with six civilians, a woman and 17-year-old girl were shot and killed and four others were wounded, including another 17-year-old girl and a 7-year-old girl, she said. 

“I urge international human rights organizations to take all possible measures to strengthen pressure on the Russian Federation to stop military aggression against Ukraine,” Denisova wrote in the post.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, U.S. senators set for video conference

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was set to brief U.S. senators on Saturday by video conference as Congress considers a request for $10 billion in emergency funding for humanitarian aid and security needs.

In a bitter and emotional speech late Friday, Zelenskyy criticized NATO over the lack of a no-fly zone, saying it will fully untie Russia’s hands as it escalates its air attack.

“The alliance has given the green light to the bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages,” he said, warning that “the history of Europe will remember this forever.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg earlier in the day ruled out the possibility of a no-fly zone, saying NATO planes would have to shoot down Russian aircraft. A no-fly zone would bar all unauthorized aircraft from flying over Ukraine.

More: ‘What next?’ A Ukrainian mom wrestles with ‘a million questions’ over her family, country’s fate

“The only way to implement a no-fly zone is to send NATO fighter planes into Ukrainian airspace, and then impose that no-fly zone by shooting down Russian planes,” NATO Secretary Stoltenberg said. “We understand the desperation, but we also believe that if we did that, we would end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe.”

— Associated Press

Defence minister: 66K Ukrainians return from abroad to fight Russia

Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted Saturday that more than 60,000 Ukrainian men returned to the country from abroad to fight against Russian invaders. 

“66224. That’s how many men returned from abroad at this moment to defend their Country from the horde,” he tweeted.

Reznikov added that the returned troops would create 12 additional “combat and motivated” brigades.

“Ukrainians, we are invincible! #FightLikeUkrainian,” he wrote.

– Ella Lee

Cease-fire in two Ukraine areas

The Russian military is observing a cease-fire in two areas of Ukraine to allow civilians to evacuate, Russian state media reported Saturday, the first breakthrough in allowing civilians to escape the war.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that it had agreed on evacuation routes with Ukrainian forces to allow civilians to leave the strategic port of Mariupol in the southeast and the eastern town of Volnovakha “from 10 a.m. Moscow time” (8 a.m. GMT.) The vaguely worded statement did not make clear how long the routes would remain open.

A top official in Mariupol said the cease-fire there is to last until 4 p.m. (2 p.m. GMT) and an evacuation along a humanitarian corridor would begin at 11 a.m. (9 a.m. GMT.) Pavlo Kirilenko, head of the Donetsk military-civil administration that includes Mariupol, said the humanitarian corridor would extend from the city to Zaporizhzhia.

The head of Ukraine’s security council, Oleksiy Danilov, had called on Russia to create humanitarian corridors to allow children, women and the older adults to get away from the fighting, calling such corridors “question No. 1.”

— Associated Press

UN agency: Ukraine exodus reaches 1.45 million

GENEVA – The International Organization for Migration says the number of people who have left Ukraine since fighting began has now reached 1.45 million.

The U.N. migration agency, citing figures from government ministries in countries where they have arrived, said Saturday that 787,300 of them went to Poland. Some 228,700 fled to Moldova, 144,700 to Hungary, 132,600 to Romania and 100,500 to Slovakia.

The IOM said that nationals of 138 countries have crossed Ukraine’s borders into neighboring nations.

— Associated Press

Spokesman: Turkish President Erdogan to speak with Putin Sunday

ISTANBUL – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman says the Turkish leader will speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday.

“This war must be stopped immediately and there must be a return to the negotiating table,” Ibrahim Kalin told broadcaster NTV in Istanbul. He said Saturday that “our president will talk to Putin tomorrow.”

NATO member Turkey has close ties to both Russia and Ukraine and has repeatedly offered to mediate between the two. It has invited the top diplomats of both countries to Turkey for talks next week.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Friday that Russian Foreign Minister Seygey Lavrov had confirmed his attendance at the Antalya Diplomacy Forum, to be held in the Mediterranean coastal city between March 11-13.

— Associated Press

Tracking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Russia’s forces continue to move within Ukraine’s borders.

Russia reportedly seized Kherson, a key Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea and the first major city to fall. Early Friday, Russian troops seized Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.

The Russian advance on Kyiv, meanwhile, has remained largely stalled.

Russian propaganda ‘outgunned’ by social media rebuttals

Russian state media is spreading misinformation about the location of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in what analysts said is an attempt to discourage resistance fighters and erode support for Ukraine around the globe.

A story published by the Russian News Agency Tass this week quoted a Russian lawmaker saying Zelenskyy “hastily fled” Kyiv for Lviv in far western Ukraine, despite photos and video clips showing him leading Ukraine’s defense from its capital.

It’s one of many distorted claims to emerge from a Russian propaganda and disinformation campaign that aims to strengthen domestic support for the invasion and undermine the resolve of Ukrainians. But the same tactics that have sustained such propaganda for years are running into a far more complex reality where the claims can be instantly and credibly rebutted on social media.

Videos and photos of Zelenskyy in Kyiv have quickly become some of the defining images of the invasion, rallying support for Ukraine at home and abroad and challenging Russia’s attempt to control public perception.

— Associated Press

Contributing: The Associated Press