KYIV (AFP, REUTERS) - Ukraine on Wednesday (March 16) rejected proposals pushed by Russia for it to adopt a neutral status comparable to Austria or Sweden, saying talks with Moscow to end fighting should focus on “security guarantees”.
“Ukraine is now in a direct state of war with Russia. Consequently, the model can only be ‘Ukrainian’ and only on legally verified security guarantees,” its top negotiator Mikhailo Podolyak said in comments published by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office.
Moscow had earlier said that some parts of a possible peace deal with Ukraine were close to being agreed after Kyiv agreed to discuss neutrality, raising hopes of an end to the biggest war in Europe since World War II.
“Neutral status is now being seriously discussed along, of course, with security guarantees,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said told RBC news.
“Now this very thing is being discussed in negotiations - there are absolutely specific formulations which in my view are close to agreement,” Mr Lavrov said.
He said that President Vladimir Putin had spoken about neutrality, along with security guarantees for Ukraine without Nato enlargement, as one possible variant in February.
Mr Lavrov had cautioned that the negotiations were not easy but that there was “some hope of reaching a compromise”.
Ukraine has also made cautious positive statements on peace talks. It says it is willing to negotiate to the end the war, but will not surrender or accept Russian ultimatums.
Mr Lavrov said key issues included the security of people in eastern Ukraine, the demilitarisation of Ukraine and the rights of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine.
The two sides are scheduled for another round of talks on Wednesday.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia’s “positions in the negotiations sound more realistic”.
“Efforts are still needed, we still have to fight and work – everyone in their place,” Zelensky said in a video address. “In particular, our representatives, our delegation in negotiations with the Russian Federation. It is difficult, but important, because any war ends in an agreement. Meetings continue.”
Several explosions meanwhile rocked Kyiv early on Wednesday, according to AFP journalists in the city, with emergency services saying two residential buildings were damaged and two people wounded.
The blasts came as Russia intensifies attacks on the Ukrainian capital, which was placed under curfew late on Tuesday due to what its mayor called a "difficult and dangerous moment".
At least three loud explosions were heard just after dawn in the western part of the city, and thick clouds of smoke billowed into the sky.
"Two residential buildings were damaged in an overnight bombardment in the central part of Kyiv, Shevchenkivskyi district. Two people reported wounded, 35 evacuated," the Ukrainian state emergency service said on Telegram.
Images released by the emergency services showed the top corner of one building had been partially destroyed, while the other had damage and scorch marks to its roof and upper part.
It was not possible to immediately visit the scene as journalists are restricted from moving around the city during the curfew, which lasts until Thursday morning.
At least four people were killed and 40 injured in a Russian strike that set a building on fire in Kyiv's Sviatoshynsky district on Tuesday. Several other buildings were also hit.
Nearly three weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces hemming in Kyiv on two sides have stepped up their attacks, with many in the capital fearing a full-on assault could come soon.
Battles continue to rage in cities like Mariupol, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv, as well as in suburban towns just outside Kyiv.
The Ukrainian prosecutor-general said on Wednesday that 103 children have been killed so far in the war in Ukraine.
Russian forces have struck more than 400 educational establishments and 59 of them have been destroyed, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said on Facebook.
Separately, a senior Ukrainian official said it was an “open question” whether a “humanitarian corridor” would be opened on Wednesday to evacuate more civilians from the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk also said in a video address that Russian forces were in control of a hospital which they captured on Tuesday in Mariupol, and that 400 staff and patients there were being held hostage.
Russian troops had opened fire from artillery positions on the grounds of the hospital, she said.