KYIV (AFP) - Ukraine warned on Monday (March 28) the humanitarian crisis in the pulverised city of Mariupol was now "catastrophic", as fighting surged around Kyiv ahead of new face-to-face peace talks with Russia in Turkey.
Russian attacks near Kyiv cut power to more than 80,000 homes, officials said, underscoring the peril facing the capital despite an apparent retreat in Moscow's war aims to focus on eastern Ukraine.
"The enemy is trying to break through the corridor around Kyiv and block transport routes," Ukraine's Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said.
"The defence of Kyiv continues. It is very serious today," she said.
"It is extremely difficult for the enemy, but we must be honest about the fact that the enemy is trying to capture Kyiv, because to capture Kyiv is essentially a captured Ukraine, and this is their goal."
There have been more than 100 deaths in Kyiv since Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, the city’s mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Monday.
In an address to the city council of Florence, which is twinned with Kyiv, Klitschko said more than 20 corpses could not be identified and four of the victims were children, while another 16 injured children are in hospital.
“The cities around Kyiv have seen numerous battles... on the roads we see many corpses and pieces of human corpses,” Klitschko said, according an Italian interpreter.
About 20,000 Ukrainians have been killed in Russia's month-old invasion and 10 million have fled their homes, according to Kyiv, and several cities are still coming under withering bombardment.
Humanitarian needs are direst in the southern port city of Mariupol, where Ukraine said that about 160,000 civilians remain encircled by Russian forces, desperate for food, water and medicine.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said the situation there was "catastrophic" and Russia's assault from land, sea and air had turned a city once home to 450,000 people "into dust".
Ukraine says that one Russian strike on a theatre-turned-shelter in Mariupol is feared to have killed some 300 people.
Local lawmaker Kateryna Sukhomlynova said the theatre death toll remained unknown because of poor communications, but witnessed terrible scenes in the city before she was able to escape west.
Unburied bodies line streets and residents cowering in basement shelters have been forced to eat snow to stay hydrated, she told AFP.
"People were calling out to me hysterically, asking me 'Why aren't we burying them?' And I responded, 'If I take care of the dead, the living that I can help will die'," Ms Sukhomlynova said.
Ukraine decided against any humanitarian corridors on Monday because of potential "provocations" by the Russians along designated routes, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
France, Greece and Turkey are hoping to launch a mass evacuation of civilians out of Mariupol within days, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, who is seeking agreement from Russia's Vladimir Putin.
Mr Macron warned that any escalation "in words or action" could harm his evacuation efforts, after US President Joe Biden's shock declaration in Poland that Mr Putin "cannot remain in power".
Mr Biden himself rowed back on Sunday, denying to reporters that he had been calling for regime change, while Britain and Germany have joined France in distancing themselves from the remark.
Peace 'without delay'
Russia has de facto control over the southern peninsula of Crimea that it annexed in 2014, and the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in the eastern Donbas region.
In the Lugansk city of Rubizhne, one person was killed and another wounded by overnight Russian bombardment, according to regional Ukrainian officials.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said the first round of in-person talks since March 10 - due to open in Istanbul on Tuesday after near-daily video contacts - must bring peace "without delay".
Ukrainian "neutrality", and the future status of Donbas, could be in the mix for the Istanbul meeting. Ukraine's delegation said it had been delayed and the talks would open on Tuesday.
"We understand that it is impossible to liberate all territory by force, that would mean World War III, I fully understand and realise that," Mr Zelensky said.
But he stressed: "Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity are beyond doubt. Effective security guarantees for our state are mandatory."
Mr Putin has called Moscow's military goals "demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine", as well as the imposition of neutral status.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov named the primary goal as "ending the killing in the Donbas region that has lasted eight years".
He rejected Mr Zelensky's demands to meet personally with Mr Putin, but said: "We have an interest in these talks ending with a result that will achieve the fundamental aims for us."
Russia last week appeared to scale back its campaign when senior general Sergei Rudskoi said the first phase of the war was over and the "main goal" was now on controlling Donbass in the east.
Western analysts say Ukraine's unexpectedly dogged resistance, coupled with logistical and tactical failures by the Russians, explain any reorientation by Moscow.
The Kremlin is taking no chances with domestic opposition to its war. A crackdown on independent reporting ensnared another victim on Monday after new warnings from Russia's media regulator.
The Novaya Gazeta newspaper, whose chief editor Dmitry Muratov was last year awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, said it was suspending publication until the end of the invasion.
Many foreign companies are giving up on Russia altogether, after a raft of Western sanctions. European brewers Carlsberg and Heineken joined the exodus on Monday.
Russia's Korea solution?
Many in Ukraine remain suspicious that Russia could use the talks as an opportunity to regroup and fix the problems bedevilling its military.
"After a failure to capture Kyiv and remove Ukraine's government, Putin is changing his main operational directions," intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov said.
He was aiming now "impose a separation line between the occupied and unoccupied regions", the Ukrainian official said.
"It will be an attempt to set up South and North Koreas in Ukraine."
The head of Ukraine's Luhansk separatist region says it may hold a referendum on becoming part of Russia.
But resistance in besieged Mariupol is the main obstacle preventing Moscow from gaining unbroken control of land from the Donbass to the Crimea.
In the southern town of Mykolaiv, under heavy assault for weeks, the bombardments appeared to be easing.
That was a welcome respite for locals like 13-year-old Sofia, who suffered shrapnel injuries to her head during shelling in early March near Mykolaiv.
"Now I can move my arms and legs a little," she said, after undergoing three operations.
"I still can't get up without my mother's help, but hopefully I can leave soon."