USAID chief stresses need for humanitarian access in Ukraine

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine intensifies, the head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) says it is crucial to secure humanitarian access to Ukrainian towns and cities under heavy bombardment.

Samantha Power said on Thursday that humanitarian aid is already being amassed for Ukraine, but that the international community must be ready to press Russia to allow that assistance through as the fighting rages.

“The big issue of modern conflict – as you know in places like Syria, Yemen, elsewhere and Ethiopia most dramatically – is access,” Power said during a virtual address to the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank.

In those other conflicts, she said, forces that control specific areas have denied humanitarian access, “and so that cannot happen in this instance”.

USAID is responsible for US humanitarian and development assistance abroad. Power’s remarks come amid an increasing need for assistance to Ukraine as the war enters its eighth day after Russia launched an all-out attack on its neighbour on February 24.

Later on Thursday, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said talks between delegations from Moscow and Kyiv made progress to secure humanitarian corridors to allow for the evacuation of civilians.

“That is, not everywhere, but only in those places where the humanitarian corridors themselves will be located, it will be possible to cease fire for the duration of the evacuation,” Podolyak was quotes as saying by the Reuters news agency.

Russian forces captured the strategic southern port city of Kherson on Thursday and encircled Mariupol to the east as they push to capture urban centres across the country, including the capital, Kyiv.

The fighting has pushed one million Ukrainians to flee the country in search of safety so far, according to the United Nations.

“For many millions more, inside Ukraine, it’s time for guns to fall silent, so that life-saving humanitarian assistance can be provided,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi wrote on Twitter late on Wednesday.

Power, who returned from a visit to Poland, where she observed refugees arriving at the border from Ukraine earlier this week, lauded neighbouring states for opening their borders, saying the flow of refugees is likely to increase in the coming days.

She also described the anxiety and separation that displaced Ukrainians are experiencing, and said the bulk of refugees are women and children.

Power added that as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s endgame remains unclear, many displaced Ukrainians do not know what will happen next.

“The other dimension of it is not really knowing what Putin’s plans are beyond what he is doing right now,” Power said. “So some people came over but left family in western Ukraine, in towns like Lviv, and yet there’s a lot of anxiety about what Putin’s intentions are.”

The US and its allies have been piling sanctions on Moscow over the invasion, targeting major banks and industries as well as wealthy elites in Putin’s inner circle.

The International Criminal Court prosecutor announced late on Wednesday that he was launching an inquiry into alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

Earlier in the day, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a non-binding resolution condemning the invasion and calling on Russian troops to withdraw from Ukraine.

On Thursday, Power highlighted the importance of the UN resolution, which was backed by 141 of the UN’s 193 member states, saying that show of unity is critical because the “entire world” needs to stand for humanitarian access to Ukrainian towns and cities.

“Because it is Russian troops that are encircling these towns and forcing civilians to be subjected to shelling and bombardment and food shortages and the absence of insulin and other critical medicines, it is the Russian Federation that will have to be pressed to open up access,” she said.

“And those negotiations will happen tactically, town by town.”

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