France says Russia's Putin not ready to end Ukraine war, fighting rages

Ukrainian soldiers stand on guard in Irpin, north of Kyiv, on March 12, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

LVIV, UKRAINE (REUTERS) - Fighting raged near Kyiv on Saturday (March 12) and heavy shelling in other areas threatened new attempts to evacuate trapped civilians as France said Russian President Vladimir Putin showed no readiness to end the war in Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Moscow was sending in new troops after Ukrainian forces put 31 of Russia's battalion tactical groups out of action in what he called Russia's largest army losses in decades. It was not possible to verify his statements.

He also said about 1,300 Ukrainian troops had been killed so far and urged the West to get more involved in peace negotiations. The president suggested Russian forces would face a fight to the death if they sought to enter the capital.

"If they decide to carpet bomb (Kyiv), and simply erase the history of this region, the history of the Kyivan Rus, the history of Europe, and destroy all of us, then they will enter Kyiv. If that's their goal, let them come in, but they will have to live on this land by themselves," he told a news conference.

Zelensky discussed the war with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Emmanuel Macron, and the German and French leaders then spoke to Putin by phone and urged the Russian leader to order an immediate ceasefire.

A Kremlin statement on the 75-minute call made no mention of a ceasefire and a French presidency official said: "We did not detect a willingness on Putin's part to end the war."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused the United States of escalating tensions and said the situation had been complicated by convoys of Western arms shipments to Ukraine that Russian forces considered "legitimate targets".

In comments reported by the Tass news agency, Ryabkov made no specific threat, but any attack on such convoys before they reached Ukraine would risk widening the war.

Responding to Zelensky's call for the West to be more involved in peace negotiations, a US State Department spokesperson said: "If there are diplomatic steps that we can take that the Ukrainian government believes would be helpful, we're prepared to take them."

Crisis talks between Moscow and Kyiv have been continuing via a video link, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Russia's RIA news agency. He gave no details but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv would not surrender or accept any ultimatums.

Humanitarian corridors

Air raid sirens blared across most Ukrainian cities on Saturday morning, local media reported.

Russian rocket attacks destroyed a Ukrainian airbase and hit an ammunition depot near the town of Vasylkiv in the Kyiv region, Interfax Ukraine quoted its mayor as saying.

The exhausted-looking governor of Chernihiv, around 150km north-east of Kyiv, gave a video update in front of the ruins of the city's Ukraine Hotel, which he said had been hit.

"There is no such hotel any more," Viacheslav Chaus said, wiping tears from his eyes. "But Ukraine itself still exists, and it will prevail."

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Britain's defence ministry said fighting north-west of the capital continued, with the bulk of Russian ground forces 25km from the centre of Kyiv, which it has said Russia could attack within days.

Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol remained encircled under heavy Russian shelling, it said.

Putin launched the invasion on Feb 24 in an operation that has been almost universally condemned around the world and that has drawn tough Western sanctions on Russia.

The Russian bombardment has trapped thousands of people in besieged cities and sent 2.5 million Ukrainians fleeing to neighbouring countries. Zelensky said the conflict meant some small Ukrainian towns no longer existed.

Moscow has denied targeting civilians in what it calls a special operation to demilitarise and "de-Nazify" Ukraine. It has not responded to Ukrainian challenges to provide evidence.

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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 though some evacuations were proceeding.

The Donetsk region's governor said constant shelling was complicating bringing aid into the southern city of Mariupol.

"There are reports of looting and violent confrontations among civilians over what little basic supplies remain in the city," the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

"Medicines for life-threatening illnesses are quickly running out, hospitals are only partially functioning, and the food and water are in short supply."

Makeshift burials

People were boiling ground water for drinking, using wood to cook food and burying dead bodies near where they lay, a staff member for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) in Mariupol said.

"We saw people who died because of lack of medication," he said, adding that many people had also been wounded or killed."Neighbours just dig a hole in the ground and put the dead bodies inside."

At least 1,582 civilians in Mariupol have been killed as a result of Russian shelling and a 12-day blockade, the city council said on Friday. It was not possible to verify casualty figures.

Moscow has previously blamed Kyiv for failed evacuations.

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Ukraine has accused Russian forces of kidnapping the mayor of the southern city of Melitopol, which Russia controls.

Zelensky called on Saturday for his release and more than 2,000 residents protested outside the city administration building to demand the release of mayor's release, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the president's office, said.

Russia has not commented on the fate of Fedorov.

Efforts to isolate Russia economically have stepped up, with the United States imposing new sanctions on senior Kremlin officials and Russian oligarchs on Friday.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU would on Saturday suspend Moscow's privileged trade and economic treatment, crack down on its use of crypto-assets, and ban the import of iron and steel goods from Russia, as well as the export of luxury goods in the other direction.

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