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Conflict rages near Kyiv as Ukrainians claim heavy shelling could jeopardise evacuations.

Conflict raged near Kyiv on Saturday and Ukrainian officials said heavy shelling and threats of Russian air attacks were endangering attempted evacuations of desperate civilians from encircled towns and cities elsewhere.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia was sending in new troops after Ukrainian forces had put 31 of its battalion tactical groups out of action in what he called Russia’s largest army losses in decades.

He said 500-600 Russian troops had surrendered on Friday alone and that about 1,300 Ukrainian troops had been killed since the conflict began. It was not possible to verify his statements.

Zelenskiy also said he had spoken to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron about pressuring Russia to release the mayor of the city of Melitopol, who Ukraine says was kidnapped on Friday by Russian forces.

More than 2,000 residents of the southern city, which is now under Russian control, protested outside the city administration building to demand the release of the mayor, Ivan Fedorov, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the president’s office, said. Russia has not commented on the fate of Fedorov, who Ukrainian officials said was kidnapped by Russian forces on false accusations of terrorism.

Humanitarian situation

Scholz and Macron urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare an immediate ceasefire in a 75-minute phone call on Saturday, Scholz’s spokesperson said. The Kremlin said Putin had briefed them about the state of play in negotiations and responded to their concerns about the humanitarian situation. Zelenskiy said the conflict meant some small Ukrainian towns no longer existed and that any negotiations must start with a ceasefire. Existing talks had begun to broach concrete topics rather than just exchange ultimatums, he said. The Kremlin readout of the call with Macron and Scholz did not mention a ceasefire and accused Ukraine of using civilians as human shields.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine could not stop fighting but was upholding a ceasefire around an agreed “humanitarian corridor” out of the besieged southern port of Mariupol and called on Russia to do the same. Moscow has previously blamed Kyiv for failed evacuations.

Ukrainian officials had planned to use humanitarian corridors from Mariupol as well as towns and villages in the regions of Kyiv, Sumy and some other areas on Saturday.

The governor of the Kyiv region Oleksiy Kuleba said fighting and threats of Russian air attacks were continuing on Saturday morning but later said some evacuations were proceeding. “We will try to get people out every day.”

Ukraine says thousands of civilians have been killed since Russia invaded on February 24th and, according to the UN, some 2.5 million people have fled the country of 41 million and sought safety in EU states.

Ukrainian officials say more than 1,500 residents of Mariupol have died during a 12-day siege by Russian forces and intense bombardment of the industrial port, where apartment blocks, schools, a hospital and a maternity home have been shelled or bombed.

Catastrophe

“Besieged Mariupol is now the worst humanitarian catastrophe on the planet. 1,582 dead civilians in 12 days, even buried in mass graves,” Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. “Unable to defeat the Ukrainian army, [Russia] bombs the unarmed, blocks humanitarian aid. We need planes to stop Russian war crimes!”

Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed on Friday that the western embargo would help his country become self-sufficient, and said the Soviet Union “really lived under sanctions, [but] developed and achieved tremendous successes”.

After invading Ukraine supposedly to demilitarise and “denazify” the western-backed democracy, Mr Putin said there were now “certain positive shifts” in diplomacy between the neighbours, without giving details.

Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies on Saturday has shown homes and buildings on fire and Russian artillery battalions appearing to fire on towns surrounding to the north-west of the Ukrainian capital as forces advance. The images have not yet been independently verified.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called on Ukrainians to continue fighting, but said living conditions in the Kyiv region had deteriorated into a “humanitarian catastrophe” with disrupted gas, heating and water. The Ukrainian president said his country had reached a “strategic turning point” in the conflict. “It is impossible to say how many days we still have [AHEAD OF US]to free Ukrainian land. But we can say we will do it,” he said. “We are already moving towards our goal, our victory.”

About 2 million people - half the population of the metropolitan area - had left the capital, the Kyiv mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said on Friday, and those who remained continued to prepare for its defence.

Fortified

“Every street, every house is being fortified,” he said. “Even people who in their lives never intended to change their clothes, now they are in uniform with machine guns in their hands.”

Ukrainian soldiers described fierce fighting for control of the main highway leading into the capital, while missile strikes were reported hitting just outside Kyiv’s city limits on Friday.

“It’s frightening, but what can you do?” said Vasil Popov, a 38-year-old who works in advertising sales. “There is nowhere to really run or hide. We live here.”

Continuing Russian bombardments and attacks on civilians in cities across Ukraine have prompted warnings of “an unimaginable tragedy” and a new flurry of alarm from the UN that Russia is committing war crimes.

“We are really heading towards an unimaginable tragedy,” Stephen Cornish of Doctors Without Borders told Agence France-Presse, insisting “there is still time to avoid it, and we must see it avoided”.

— Additional reporting from Reuters, Guardian News and Media 2022

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