Refugees plead for protection for Ukraine as Western leaders meet

Aysel 33, from Kherson, Ukraine, hugs her husband as their daughter Aylin, 6, looks at them as they meet, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland March 23, 2022. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel
  • Refugees echo Ukrainian president's call for no-fly zone
  • Thousands of Ukrainian children in Polish schools
  • Number of refugees crossing into neighbouring countries falls

PRZEMYSL, Poland, March 24 (Reuters) - Ukrainian refugees in Poland urged Western powers on Thursday to do more to protect the country from Russian bombardment as leaders met in Brussels for unprecedented summits of NATO, G7 and the European Union.

Echoing President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's repeated calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine - where thousands of people have been killed - many said they were scared for family left behind.

"We ask for protection from (Russia) bombing us from the sky," said Svetlana, from Mykolaiv, standing in Poland's Przemysl railway station, not far from the Ukrainian border.

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"And help us not only with equipment but with peace forces and professional soldiers," said the 55-year-old, who was returning home with her son to rejoin her parents and older son after initially seeking refuge in Poland and Germany.

President Zelenskiy said he expected "serious steps" from the Brussels meetings to help Kyiv fight Russia's month-old invasion, which has driven a quarter of Ukraine's population of 44 million from their homes. read more

More than 3.6 million people have fled the country since the invasion began, with the majority seeking safety in Poland.

Zoriana-Mariya Kruk, 31, fled with her daughter Eva from Chervonohrad in western Ukraine to the safety of the Benedictine Sisters Monastery in Jaroslaw, southern Poland, where she now attends pre-school.

"Constant air raid alarms, sirens, picking up your children at 2, 3 a.m... interrupting their sleep, and going with them to the basement," Kruk said, describing the situation in her home town. "No one knows how that night will end... Nobody knows where a rocket could hit."

Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek told the Onet news website on Thursday that there were around 115,000 Ukrainian children in Polish schools.

Western leaders have promised to step up support for Ukraine, but NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeated that the alliance will not send troops or planes to Ukraine. read more

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said a no-fly zone above Ukraine would mean air war between NATO and Russia, saying escalation must be avoided.

The Kremlin said most NATO member states suffered from an "hysterical and inadequate" understanding of what is going on in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops into Ukraine on what he calls a "special military operation" to disarm and "denazify" Ukraine. Kyiv and the West say Putin launched an unprovoked war.

THOUGHTS OF HOME

Przemysl station became an important entry into Poland in the first weeks of the invasion, its halls and corridors bustling with refugees, volunteers and members of the public offering lifts to other European countries.

However, the numbers making the border crossing have steadily waned and the atmosphere in the station on Thursday was calm.

Poland's Border Guard said that on Wednesday, around 30,000 people crossed over from Ukraine, a decrease of 2.5% compared to the previous day.

In Romania, 8,910 people crossed, a 4.1% drop, border police data showed. Many people in frontline EU states have offered accommodation to refugees.

Romania's government said late on Wednesday it will reimburse Romanians who are taking in refugees 20 lei ($4.44) per day for food and 50 lei per day for accommodation.

Meanwhile the Czech Republic approved compensation for those opening their homes to refugees of 3,000 Czech crowns ($133.55)per month per person, up to a maximum of 12,000 crowns per household.

Many of the 2.2 million people who have fled to Poland since Russia's invasion began on Feb. 24 have ties to a large Ukrainian diaspora - family or friends, with whom they can seek shelter.

Nela Kot, 66, from Chernihiv said she was travelling to stay with a daughter in either Denmark or Austria, but missed her home despite a "catastrophic" situation in the heavily bombed city where she said there was no electricity or gas.

"We want (Western partners) to close (the) sky," she said, adding "I want to go home. I see my home in my dreams every night."

"I planted seedlings already in the soil. My flowers were growing as never before," she said as she broke down in tears.

($1 = 22.4630 Czech crowns)

($1 = 4.5001 lei)

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Reporting by Anna Koper, Gerhard Mey and Anna Voitenko in Przemysl, Gabriele Pileri and Roberto Mignucci in Jaroslaw, Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw, Luiza Ilie in Bucharest, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka in Prague, writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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