LVIV, UKRAINE (REUTERS) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned Russian forces they face a fight to the death if they try to occupy the capital Kyiv, as air raid sirens again woke residents on Sunday morning (March 13).
“If they decide to carpet bomb and simply erase the history of this region... 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,” Mr Zelensky said on Saturday.
The President, who has repeatedly appeared on social media from the capital, said some small towns no longer existed amid the third week of Russian attacks, the biggest assault on a European country since World War II.
Russian shelling has trapped thousands of people in besieged cities and sent 2.5 million Ukrainians fleeing to neighbouring countries.
Ukraine accused Russian forces on Saturday of killing seven civilians in an attack on women and children trying to flee fighting near Kyiv.
France said Russian President Vladimir Putin had shown no readiness to make peace.
The Ukrainian intelligence service said the seven, including one child, were killed as they fled the village of Peremoha and that "the occupiers forced the remnants of the column to turn back".
Reuters was unable immediately to verify the report and Russia offered no immediate comment.
Moscow has denied targeting civilians since invading Ukraine on Feb 24. It blames Ukraine for failed attempts to evacuate civilians from encircled cities, an accusation Ukraine and its Western allies strongly reject.
Mr 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. Reuters could not verify his statements.
“We still need to hold on. We still have to fight,” Mr Zelensky said in a video address late on Saturday, his second of the day.
Saying about 1,300 Ukrainian troops had been killed, he urged the West to get more involved in peace negotiations.
The United States said it would rush up to US$200 million (S$269 million) in additional small arms, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to Ukraine, where officials have pleaded for more military aid.
The Kremlin describes its actions as a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and unseat leaders it calls neo-Nazis. Ukraine and Western allies call this a baseless pretext for a war of choice that has raised fears of wider conflict in Europe.
Mr Zelensky discussed the war with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, who urged Mr Putin to order an immediate ceasefire.
A Kremlin statement on their 75-minute call made no mention of a ceasefire.
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 US 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, Mr Ryabkov made no specific threat. Any attack on such convoys before they reached Ukraine would risk widening the war.
Crisis talks between Moscow and Kyiv have been continuing by video link, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, according to Russia’s RIA news agency. He gave no details, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv would not surrender or accept any ultimatums.
Russian rocket attacks destroyed a Ukrainian airbase and hit an ammunition depot near 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.
“There is no such hotel any more,” Mr Viacheslav Chaus said, wiping tears from his eyes. “But Ukraine itself still exists, and it will prevail.”
Britain’s Defence Ministry has said Russian ground forces were massed 25km from the centre of Kyiv, while Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and the key Black Sea port of Mariupol remained encircled under heavy Russian shelling.
The general staff of the Ukraine armed forces said Russia had slowed its offensive and, in many places, its forces had been stopped.
The military’s Facebook post did not give details.
Ukrainian officials had planned to use humanitarian corridors from Mariupol in the south, as well as towns and villages in the regions of Kyiv, Sumy and some other areas on Saturday.
Around 13,000 people were evacuated from Ukrainian cities on Saturday, said Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
It was almost twice the number who got out the previous day but far fewer than on the two days prior to that.
The Donetsk region’s governor said constant shelling was complicating bringing aid into Mariupol.
Fires were burning in the western section of the city and dozens of apartment buildings were heavily damaged, according to images taken on Saturday by private US satellite firm Maxar.
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. Reuters could not verify casualty figures.
“There are reports of looting and violent confrontations among civilians over what little basic supplies remain in the city,” the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
People were boiling ground water for drinking, using wood to cook food and burying their dead near where they lay, a staff member of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) in Mariupol said.
Mr Zelensky later on Saturday said he had spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett about the prospects for peace talks. Mr Bennett met Mr Putin and previously talked by phone to Mr Zelensky, but the diplomatic efforts so far have appeared fruitless.
Russia's invasion has been almost universally condemned around the world and Moscow has drawn tough Western sanctions.
A senior Russian defence ministry official said the humanitarian situation in Ukraine continued to decline rapidly and blamed Ukrainian fighters, accusing them of mining neighbourhoods and destroying bridges and roads, the RIA news agency reported.
Russian officials have previously accused Ukrainian forces of shelling their own people and then seeking to blame Moscow, allegations that Kyiv and Western nations dismissed as lies.
The governor of the Kyiv region, Mr Oleksiy Kuleba, said fighting and threats of Russian air attacks were continuing on Saturday morning though some evacuations were proceeding.
Efforts to isolate Russia economically have stepped up, with the US imposing new sanctions on senior Kremlin officials and Russian oligarchs on Friday.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the European Union on Saturday would 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.