KYIV (REUTERS, AFP) - Russian air strikes and shelling hit Kyiv on Tuesday (March 15) killing at least four people, authorities said, as invading forces tightened their grip on the Ukrainian capital and the mayor announced a 35-hour curfew starting at 8pm (2am Singapore time Wednesday).
Two large blasts echoed across the centre of the city just before dawn on Tuesday.
Late on Monday, tracer bullets flashed across the night sky as Ukrainian forces apparently targeted an enemy drone.
"Today is a difficult and dangerous moment," mayor Vitali Klitschko said. "The capital is the heart of Ukraine, and it will be defended. Kyiv, which is currently the symbol and forward operating base of Europe’s freedom and security, will not be given up by us."
He called on men who took wives and children to the relative safety of the west of the country earlier in the conflict to return to the capital to fight.
Some have done so already, he and his brother Wladimir told Reuters in a recent interview.
Reuters witnesses saw a high-rise apartment block in flames after being struck by artillery. Firefighters tried to douse the blaze and rescue workers helped evacuate residents trapped inside using mobile ladders. A body lay on the ground in a bag.
The Artem weapons factory in central Kyiv was also hit, with footage taken by a local resident showing smoke coming from the roof.
Outside kiosks nearby, shopkeepers and helpers swept up glass and other debris from the impact of the explosions.
Russia said on Monday that it planned to attack Ukrainian arms factories in retaliation for what it said was a Ukrainian strike on the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, and urged workers and local residents to stay away.
Ukraine denied launching an attack.
Kyiv has been spared the worst of the fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, but the Russian military is slowly closing in on the city and the shelling has intensified.
"What is happening right now in Kharkiv, in Mariupol and other cities – it was understandable that sooner or later it would happen in Kyiv," said local resident Igor Krupa.
Sitting on the ground outside the badly damaged apartment building, he described how he had cocooned himself with furniture and metal weights before going to sleep.
"This actually saved me because all the windows went out and all the debris went into the apartment, and I remained unwounded. Just a couple of scratches."
In another part of the city, residents cleared debris from their homes after shelling blew out windows, ruined balconies and left wreckage strewn across the ground.
Just hours earlier President Volodymyr Zelensky – wearing his now-signature military-green T-shirt – issued a defiant video address claiming Russia was beginning to realise victory would not come on the battlefield.
“They have already begun to understand that they will not achieve anything by war,” Zelensky said, describing the latest round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian negotiators positively.
“Pretty good, as I was told,” he said of Monday’s first day of discussions. “But let’s see. They will continue tomorrow.”
The two sides are far apart, with Moscow demanding Ukraine turn away from the West and recognise Moscow-backed breakaway regions.
Ukrainian negotiators say they want “peace, an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops”.
Almost three weeks after vast columns of Russian forces marched across the border, Moscow’s forces have bombarded and besieged several Ukrainian towns and cities.
Fighting has intensified in recent days around Kyiv, which is almost completely surrounded by Russian forces.
More than half of Kyiv's three million inhabitants have fled the city.
Only roads to the south of the capital remain open, and city authorities have set up checkpoints and residents are stockpiling food and medicine.
The United Nations estimates almost 2.8 million people have fled Ukraine and some 636 civilian deaths have been recorded, including dozens of children. The true toll is likely far higher.
Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict and millions more displaced.
Russia, which denies targeting civilians, calls its actions a “special military operation” to “denazify” the country, a claim that Ukraine and its allies reject as a pretext for an unjustified and illegal attack.
Russia’s military progress has been slow and costly, with Moscow apparently underestimating the strength of Ukrainian resistance.
Many military experts believe Russia’s military now needs time to regroup and resupply its troops, paving the way for a possible pause or slowdown in fighting.
The head of Russia’s national guard Viktor Zolotov has reportedly admitted the operation was “not going as fast as we would like” but said victory would come step-by-step.
Moscow has reportedly turned to Beijing for military and economic help – prompting what one US official said were several hours of “very candid” talks between high-ranking US and Chinese officials.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his forces “to hold back on any immediate assault on large cities” according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who cited “civilian losses” as the reason for stalling an attack.
Russian troops have kept up their siege of southern Mariupol, where officials said nearly 2,200 people have been killed.
In a glimmer of hope for residents of the besieged port city, more than 160 civilian cars were able to leave along a humanitarian evacuation route on Monday after several failed attempts.
Ukraine plans to open nine “humanitarian corridors” on Tuesday to evacuate civilians from areas besieged by Russian forces, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, adding that authorities will also try to deliver humanitarian supplies to Mariupol.
Vitaliy Koval, the governor of the northern region of Rivne, said separately that the death toll from a Russian air strike on a television tower in his region on Monday had risen to at least 19.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s allies have piled pressure on Putin’s regime with unprecedented economic sanctions, and the Kremlin faces domestic pressure despite widespread censorship of the war.
During Russia’s most-watched evening news broadcast on Monday, a dissenting employee entered the studio holding up a poster saying “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda.”
An opposition protest monitor said the woman, an editor at the state broadcaster Channel One, was detained following the highly unusual breach of security.
Shelling in Kyiv
Across Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has continued to take a bloody toll, destroying cities and ensuring that many lives will never be the same again.
“They say that he is too severely burned, that I won’t recognise him,” sobbed Lidiya Tikhovska, 83, staring at the spot where a paramedic said the remains of her son Vitaliy lay following a missile strike in Kyiv.
“I wish Russia the same grief I feel now,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks as she clung to her grandson’s elbow for support.
A correspondent for Fox News – Britain’s Benjamin Hall – was injured and hospitalised while reporting on the city outskirts, the network said, a day after a US journalist was shot dead in Irpin, a frontline Kyiv suburb.
Meanwhile, Moscow-backed separatists said fragments from a shot-down Ukrainian Tochka-U missile ripped through the centre of the eastern city of Donetsk, killing 23 people.
Moscow called it a “war crime” and rebels published images of bloody corpses strewn in the street.
But Ukraine’s army denied firing a missile at the city, with Ukrainian army spokesman Leonid Matyukhin saying in a statement: “It is unmistakably a Russian rocket or another munition.”
In the neighbouring Luhansk region Ukrainian commander Sergiy Gaiday said the whole Ukrainian-held zone was being bombarded, including “homes, hospitals, schools, water, gas and electricity networks” as well as trains evacuating civilians.
At the other end of the country, in a village outside the western city of Rivne, local authorities said nine people died and another nine were injured when Russian forces hit a television tower.
‘World War III’
Ukraine’s leader Zelensky on Monday renewed his call for Nato to impose a no-fly zone over his country – a day after at least 35 people were killed in Russian air strikes near the border with Nato member Poland.
“If you do not close our sky, it is only a matter of time before Russian missiles fall on your territory, on Nato territory, on the homes of Nato citizens,” Zelensky warned in a video address.
He is likely to repeat that call on Wednesday when he delivers a high-profile virtual address to both chambers of the US Congress.
President Joe Biden and the US's Nato allies so far have consistently refused, arguing that any attempt to establish a no-fly zone would place them in direct conflict with nuclear-armed Russia.
Instead, Washington and its EU allies have poured funds and military aid into Ukraine and imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia.
In Biden’s words: Nato fighting Russia “is World War III”.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sounded the alarm once again on the dangers of a possible showdown between atomic powers – a prospect “once unthinkable” but “now back within the realm of possibility”.
And he warned the war already risked triggering a “meltdown of the global food system” – with both Ukraine and Russia vital suppliers of wheat to dozens of the world’s least developed countries.