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UN warns of ‘extremely dire’ situation in east Ukraine

The UN warned Friday that humanitarian needs are becoming ever more urgent across war-ravaged eastern Ukraine, with a potentially fatal lack of food, water and medicines in besieged cities.

“The humanitarian situation in cities such as Mariupol and Sumy is extremely dire,” Matthew Saltmarsh, spokesman for the UN refugee agency, told reporters via video link from Poland.

Residents in those two cities, he warned, are “facing critical and potentially fatal shortages of food, water and medicines.”

Since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, several cities in the east — from Sumy in the north to Mariupol in the south — have been effectively besieged, cut off and faced near-constant attack.

Local officials in Mariupol say more than 2,000 people have died in indiscriminate shelling, and 80 percent of its housing has been destroyed.

UNHCR says more than 3.2 million people have fled Ukraine in the three weeks of war, with millions more displaced internally.

Across Ukraine, 13 million people need humanitarian assistance, it said.

Needs are also surging in a number of cities.

Saltmarsh pointed out that authorities in Odessa in the southwest had appealed for food assistance to cover 450,000 people there, as well as medicines.

Separatist-controlled areas in the east and surrounds are also seeing ever more urgent needs.

“More than 200,000 people are now without access to water across several localities in Donetsk oblast,” Saltmarsh said, adding that constant shelling in the Lugansk region had meanwhile “destroyed 80 percent of some localities, leaving 97,800 families without power.”

At the same time, he warned, “targeted attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure and lack of safe passage are increasing protection risks and posing serious threats to the lives of thousands of civilians.”

Saltmarsh said UNHCR was closely tracking negotiations for safe passage to and from Mariupol and Sumy, and already has humanitarian cargo pre-positioned to go in as soon as it is safe to do so.

The United Nations as a whole has been working with both sides in the conflict to try to ensure that aid can go in and people can be evacuated out safely.

A UN team of civil-military coordination experts is based in Moscow to liaise with Russian authorities, while another team is in contact with Ukrainian officials, Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency, told reporters.

The aim is to help the sides agree modalities around setting up humanitarian corridors, and ensure a notification system is in place to avoid individual incidents causing the entire agreement to collapse.