kyiv locks down, considers evacuation of Mariupol

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Firefighters are seen as smoke billows from a building of a research institute, part of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences, after a strike in northwest Kyiv on Tuesday. -AFP photo

Ukrainian authorities on Tuesday announced a new bid to rescue civilians in the beleaguered port city of Mariupol, which has come under heavy shelling since the Russian invasion began nearly a month ago, as the capital Kyiv is squatting in a curfew.

More than 200,000 people are trapped in the city described by those who managed to escape as a “freezing hellish landscape riddled with corpses and destroyed buildings”, Human Rights Watch said, citing data provided by a local official.

“We know there won’t be enough room for everyone” on Tuesday, but “we will try to evacuate until we have gotten everyone out of Mariupol”, promised the Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk in a video address.

At least one person was killed when drones attacked a scientific institute in Kyiv, journalists and AFP officials said.

Military rescuers removed a body covered with a black plastic sheet from the scene, AFP journalists noted.

As Russian troops continued their relentless assault on their neighbour, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky said all issues would be on the table if Russia’s Vladimir Putin agreed to lead talks to end the war, including Crimea and the disputed Donbass.

But he warned his country would be “destroyed” before he surrendered.

The Kremlin in return said it would like to see negotiations with Kyiv be “more active and substantial”.

As the Russian military appears to be making little progress in capturing key targets, fears are growing that Putin may resort to even more drastic means to reverse the trend.

“There is a sort of process going on. We would like more active and substantial (talks),” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Russia’s position was “well known to the Ukrainian side” because Moscow had delivered its demands in writing “several days ago”, Peskov said.

US President Joe Biden warned Putin was considering using chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine as he spoke to European leaders on Monday about what he called Moscow’s ‘increasingly heavy-handed tactics’ .

The US leader is due to travel to Brussels on Thursday for a series of summits bringing together NATO, EU and G7 leaders, before heading to Poland, which has taken in most of the three million Ukrainians fleeing war in their country.

UN chief Antonio Guterres said it was time for Russia to end its “absurd war” in Ukraine, declaring the conflict “unwinnable”.

Guterres added that “the only result” of more fighting was “more suffering, more destruction and more horror as far as the eye can see.”

Negotiators in Moscow and kyiv have held ongoing talks aimed at ending nearly four weeks of fierce fighting, but have so far announced no progress.

Zelensky on Tuesday urged Italian lawmakers to prevent their country from being a playground for Russia’s elite, while warning that war-induced food shortages risked sparking a new migrant crisis.

Italian MPs gave Zelensky a standing ovation as he delivered the latest in a series of video speeches to Western parliaments in a bid to drum up support after Russia invaded his country.

Since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, at least 117 children have been killed in the war, Ukraine’s federal prosecutor has said.

More than 3.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion nearly a month ago, the United Nations said on Tuesday, adding that the scale of the tragedy “far exceeds any worst-case scenario “.

Some 548 schools were damaged, with 72 completely destroyed.

But Western and Ukrainian experts believe the war was not going as the Kremlin had planned.

Moscow has stepped up military activity, carrying out 300 sorties in the past 24 hours, in a “desperate” attempt to turn the tide against Ukrainian resistance, a senior US defense official said.

The Ukrainian army command said Russian troops now had ammunition, food and fuel for just three days.

Three hundred Russian soldiers have defected to the northeastern region of Sumy, the army command added on Facebook.

But even in areas captured by Russia, resistance has continued, with Ukrainian leaders on Tuesday accusing Russian troops of firing on unarmed protesters in the southern occupied city of Kherson.

A series of videos posted on social media and the Telegram messaging app showed citizens gathering in Kherson’s “Freedom Square” to protest Russia’s recent takeover of the city.

Russian soldiers could be seen firing into the air and video footage showed a bloodied old man being carried off, although local officials said there were no fatalities.

On the front line, authorities said evacuating residents of Mariupol would be the priority on Tuesday. Three routes have been drawn connecting the port city with Zaporizhzhia, Vereshschuk said.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell had called the siege of Mariupol, which killed more than 2,000 people, a “massive war crime”.

Russia had given Mariupol until 5 a.m. Monday to surrender, but kyiv rejected the ultimatum and said the city’s resistance bolstered the defense of all of Ukraine.

Mariupol is a crucial target in Putin’s war – providing a land bridge between Russian forces in Crimea to the southwest and Russian-held territory to the north and east.

While little progress had been made through diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict, Zelensky again renewed a call for direct talks with his Russian counterpart.

“If I have this opportunity and Russia wants it, we will go through all the issues,” he told Ukrainian journalists in an interview published by Suspilne media.

“Would we solve them all?” No. But there is a chance that we can partly – at least stop the war,” he added.

Zelensky said he was even willing to discuss Russian-occupied Crimea and the breakaway Russian regions of Donbass, although he insisted he still believed they should be returned to Ukraine.

“In the first meeting with the Russian president, I am ready to raise these issues,” he said, adding that any agreement involving “historic” changes would be subject to a national referendum.

“It’s a very difficult story for everyone. Crimea and Donbass… And to find a way out, we have to take that first step, which I talked about: security guarantees, an end to the war”, he said.

He repeated his assertion that Ukraine “already understood” that it could not join NATO, but added that his compatriots would not simply “hand over” the capital, the eastern city of Kharkiv, or the Heavily bombarded and besieged southern port of Mariupol.

“Ukraine cannot respond to Russian ultimatums,” he said. “We should be destroyed first.”

In Kyiv, a 35-hour curfew went into effect at 8:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. GMT) on Monday after Russian strikes devastated the “Retroville” shopping complex, killing at least eight people.

“It’s the biggest bomb to hit the city so far,” said Dima Stepanienko, 30, who found himself thrown “at the foot of his bed” by the blast.

Russia claimed the mall was used to store rocket systems and ammunition.

To help Ukraine cope with the economic devastation of the war, European leaders are considering setting up a “trust fund” for the country, according to a draft document seen by AFP.

The funds “would provide support to the Ukrainian government for its immediate needs and, once the Russian attack is over, for the reconstruction of a democratic Ukraine”.

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