Russian troops focus on Kyiv as 150,000 Ukrainians flee

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Russian troops closed in on Kiev and skirmishes broke out on its outskirts on Saturday as Ukraine’s leader vowed to continue fighting an invasion by a much better-armed adversary. Terrified men, women and children have sought safety indoors and underground amid a 39-hour curfew imposed by the government to keep people off the streets.

The United Nations said more than 150,000 Ukrainians had fled to Poland, Moldova and other neighboring countries and warned the number could rise to 4 million if fighting intensifies.

“We will fight as long as it takes to liberate our country,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised.

To help Ukraine hold its ground, the United States on Saturday pledged an additional $350 million in military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, body armor and small arms. Germany said it would send anti-tank missiles and weapons to the beleaguered country and close its airspace to Russian planes.

Even as Zelenskyy called on his compatriots to join the fight, it was impossible to know how successful Ukraine had been in slowing down the Russian advance. A curfew in Kyiv that was due to last until Monday morning forced everyone in, although the capital’s relative calm was sporadically interrupted by gunfire.

Ukrainian refugees walk alongside vehicles queuing to cross the Ukraine-Moldova border, at the Mayaky-Udobne crossing point near Udobne, Ukraine, Saturday, February 26, 2022. The United Nations agency Refugee Agency says nearly 120,000 people have so far fled Ukraine to neighboring countries following the Russian invasion. The number was growing rapidly as Ukrainians grabbed their belongings and rushed to escape a deadly Russian attack.

Sergei Grits / AP

The fighting on the outskirts of the city suggested that small Russian units were trying to clear a path for the main forces. Small groups of Russian troops were reported inside Kiev, but Britain and the United States said the bulk of Russian forces were 30 km from the city’s center on Saturday afternoon.

Russia says its assault on Ukraine is aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighborhoods have been hit since the invasion began on Thursday with airstrikes and missiles and Russian troops entering in Ukraine from the north, east and south.

Ukraine’s health minister announced on Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1,000 others injured in Europe’s largest ground war since World War II. It was unclear whether these figures included both military and civilian casualties.

In Kyiv, a missile struck a high-rise building in the southwestern outskirts near one of the city’s two passenger airports, leaving a jagged hole of ravaged multi-storey apartments. A rescue worker said six civilians were injured.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova said troops in Kiev were fighting Russian “sabotage groups”. According to Ukraine, some 200 Russian soldiers were captured and 3,500 were killed.

Without giving further details, Markarova said Ukraine was gathering evidence of war crimes to submit to The Hague.

Zelenskyy reiterated his openness to talks with Russia in a video message on Saturday, saying he welcomed an offer from Turkish and Azerbaijani leaders to stage diplomatic efforts, which so far have failed.

The Kremlin gave terse confirmation of a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, but gave no indication of whether talks would resume. A day earlier, Zelenskyy offered to negotiate a key Russian demand: to abandon ambitions to join NATO.

Putin sent troops to Ukraine after spending weeks denying that was what he intended, while building up a force of nearly 200,000 troops along the countries’ borders. He claims the West has not taken Russia’s security concerns about NATO, the Western military alliance that Ukraine aspires to join, seriously. But he also expressed his contempt for Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state.

Putin has not revealed his ultimate plans for Ukraine, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow the Ukrainian government and replace it with his own regime, redraw the map of Europe and revive Europe. influence of Moscow during the Cold War era.

It is unclear how much territory Russian forces seized. The British Ministry of Defense said that “the speed of the Russian advance has temporarily slowed, probably due to acute logistical difficulties and heavy Ukrainian resistance”.

A senior US defense official said on Saturday that more than half of the Russian combat power that was massed along Ukraine’s borders had entered Ukraine and that Russia had to commit more fuel supplies and other support units inside Ukraine than originally planned. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US internal assessments, did not provide further details.

Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry said a Russian missile was shot down before dawn on Saturday as it headed towards the dam of the vast water reservoir that serves Kiev, and Ukraine said a military convoy Russian had been destroyed near the town early on Saturday. Footage shows soldiers inspecting burnt-out vehicles after Ukraine’s 101st Brigade reported destroying a column of two light vehicles, two trucks and a tank. The request could not be verified.

Highways leading to Kiev from the east were dotted with checkpoints manned by uniformed Ukrainian soldiers and young men in civilian clothes carrying automatic rifles. Low-flying planes patrolled the skies, though it was unclear whether they were Russian or Ukrainian.

In addition to Kiev, the Russian assault appeared to be focused on the Ukrainian coastline, which stretches from the port of Odessa on the Black Sea in the west to the port of Mariupol on the Sea of ​​Azov in the east. .

“I don’t care who wins and who doesn’t,” said Ruzanna Zubenko as her large family was forced to leave their home outside Mariupol after it was badly damaged by bombardment. Friday. “The only important thing is that our children can grow up smiling and not crying.”

If Russian troops were successful, Ukraine would be cut off from all of its seaports, which are vital to its economy. In Mariupol, Ukrainian soldiers guarded bridges and blocked people from the shore, fearing that the Russian navy would launch an assault from the sea.

Fighting also raged in two territories in eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Donetsk city authorities said the hot water supply to the city of around 900,000 people had been suspended due to damage to the system from Ukrainian shelling.

The US government urged Zelenskyy early Saturday to evacuate Kiev, but he refused the offer, according to a senior US intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation. Zelenskyy posted a provocative video recorded on a street in downtown Kyiv early Saturday claiming he had stayed in the city.

“We are not going to lay down our arms. We will protect the country,” the Ukrainian president said. “Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of this.

The conflict has driven thousands of Ukrainians from their homes in search of safety. UN officials said more than 150,000 Ukrainians had left the country for Poland, Moldova and other neighboring countries and that 4 million of them could flee if the fighting escalated.

Refugees arriving in the Hungarian border town of Zahony said men between the ages of 18 and 60 were not allowed to leave Ukraine.

“My son was not allowed to come. My heart hurts so much that I’m shaking,” said Vilma Sugar, 68.

Both Hungary and Poland have opened their borders to Ukrainians. At the Polish Medyka crossing point, some said they traveled 15 miles (35 kilometers) to reach the border.

“They had no food, no tea, they were standing in the middle of a field, on the road, the children were freezing,” said Iryna Wiklenko as she waited on the Polish side for her grandchildren and his daughter-in-law. to get him across.

Kyiv officials have urged residents to take shelter, stay away from windows and take precautions to avoid flying debris or bullets. Many spent Friday night in basements, underground parking lots and subway stations, and prepared to do the same on Saturday.

Shelves were thin in some Kyiv grocery stores and pharmacies, and some worried about how long food and medicine stocks would last.

The United States and its allies have been beefing up troops on NATO’s eastern flank, but have so far ruled out deploying troops to fight Russia. Instead, the United States, the European Union and other countries imposed far-reaching sanctions on Russia, freezing the assets of Russian companies and individuals, including Putin and his foreign minister. .

Zelenskyy called for tougher penalties.

Among the difficult possibilities that remain to prevent the Kremlin’s access to hundreds of billions in cash: to sanction the Russian Central Bank and to cut Russia off from the international payment system SWIFT.

A senior Russian official ignored the sanctions on Saturday, reflecting Western “political impotence”.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, has warned that Moscow could respond to sanctions by withdrawing from the latest nuclear arms pact, freezing Western assets and cutting diplomatic ties with Western nations.

“There is no particular need to maintain diplomatic relations,” Medvedev said. “We can look at each other through binoculars and sights.”

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