KYIV/MOSCOW (REUTERS, AFP) - An apparent Russian airstrike hit Kyiv's main television tower on Tuesday (March 1), killing at least five people and knocking out some broadcasts, shortly after Russia warned some residents in the Ukrainian capital to leave ahead of attacks on intelligence infrastructure there.
On the sixth day of Moscow's invasion into Ukraine, advancing Russian troops also shelled the second-biggest city, Kharkiv, in the east, and the southern port city of Mariupol, killing civilians and damaging buildings.
The strike on the TV tower occurred in the heart of the capital. Ukraine's emergency services said five people were killed in the attack.
After a blast sounded around the city and smoke was seen rising in the Babi Yar district, the interior ministry said equipment had been damaged and "channels won't work for a while".
But the tower structure remained intact.
The Russian defence ministry had earlier said Russian troops would soon carry out an attack on what they said was the infrastructure of Ukraine’s intelligence services in Kyiv and urged residents living nearby to leave.
“In order to suppress information attacks on Russia, the technological infrastructure of the SBU (Ukraine’s Security Service) and the 72nd main PSO (Psychological Operations Unit) centre in Kyiv will be hit with high-precision weapons,” defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said. “We call on... Kyiv residents living near relay nodes to leave their homes."
His statement came hours after reports of fierce fighting and strikes being carried out by the Russian army on residential areas in several cities in Ukraine.
Russia says it does not target civilians, but Ukraine says up to 350 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded.
"This morning the central square of our city and the headquarters of the Kharkiv administration was criminally attacked," Kharkiv's regional governor Oleg Sinegubov said in a video on Telegram, posting footage of the massive blast and debris inside the building.
"Russian occupiers continue to use heavy weaponry against the civilian population."
Mr Sinegubov said Russia launched GRAD and cruise missiles on Kharkiv but that the city defence was holding.
“Such attacks are genocide of the Ukrainian people, a war crime against the civilian population!” he said.
Kharkiv, a largely Russian-speaking city near the Russian border and Ukraine's second biggest city, has a population of around 1.4 million. It has been a target for Russian forces since President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine last Thursday.
It was the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic set up by the Bolsheviks, and is also home to some of Ukraine's most important industry, including a tank factory, as well as numerous IT companies.
In the south, Mariupol mayor Vadym Boichenko said the city was under constant shelling.
“We have had residential quarters shelled for five days. They are pounding us with artillery, they are shelling us with GRADS, they are hitting us with air forces,” Mr Boichenko said in a live broadcast on Ukrainian TV.
“We have civilian infrastructure damaged – schools, houses. There are many injured. There are women, children killed,” he said.
Mariupol's regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said the city was now without electricity following the attacks.
“Mariupol and Volnovakha are ours!” Mr Kyrylenko wrote on Facebook. “The two cities are under pressure from the enemy but they are holding on. In Mariupol, electricity lines have been cut and the city is without power."
Russian-backed separatist leader in Donetsk, Mr Denis Pushilin, said his forces aimed to encircle Mariupol on Tuesday, RIA news agency quoted him as saying.
In a video statement, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the Russian shelling of Kharkiv as a war crime and said defending the capital from Moscow’s army was a top priority.
“The strike against Kharkiv is a war crime. This is state terrorism on the part of Russia,” he said. On the sixth day of Russia’s invasion, “the defence of the capital today is the key priority for the state”, he added.
Satellite images taken on Monday showed a Russian military convoy north of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv that stretches for more than 60km, substantially longer than the 27km earlier reported, private US company Maxar Technologies said.
The photos showed that the convoy, which had been massing since Sunday, hads mushroomed to some 64km of military vehicles, covering the entire stretch of road from near Antonov airport, some 30km from the capital, to the town of Prybirsk – a distance of approximately 60km.
Maxar also said additional ground forces deployments and ground attack helicopter units were seen in southern Belarus, less than 30km north of the Ukraine border.
As Russian forces attempt to close in on Kyiv, Moscow faces increasing international isolation as talks to resolve the conflict failed to make a breakthrough.
Russia faces economic turmoil as Western nations, united in condemnation of its assault, hit it with sanctions that rippled around the world and whose targets include President Vladimir Putin and his confidants.
The European Union placed new sanctions on Russian oligarchs and officials and some of its members urged the bloc to begin talks on Ukrainian accession.
President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a letter formally requesting EU membership, an emphatic statement of commitment to Western values.
But Mr Putin showed no sign of reconsidering the invasion he unleashed on Russia's neighbour last Thursday in an attempt to pull it firmly back under Moscow's influence and redraw Europe's security map.
He dismissed the West as an "empire of lies" and replied to the new sanctions with moves to shore up Russia's crumbling rouble currency.
The Russian invasion - the biggest assault on a European state since World War II - has failed to achieve the decisive early gains that Putin would have hoped for, and Kharkiv in Ukraine's northeast has become a major battleground.
Regional administration chief Oleg Synegubov said Russian artillery had pounded residential districts even though no Ukrainian army positions or strategic infrastructure were there.
At least 11 people were killed, he said.
"This is happening in the daytime, when people have gone out to the pharmacy, for groceries, or for drinking water. It's a crime," he said.
Kharkiv's mayor, Mr Igor Terekhov, said four people had died after emerging from a bomb shelter to collect water, and that a family with three children had burned to death in a car.
Earlier, Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko said Russian rocket strikes on Kharkiv had killed dozens. It was not possible to verify the casualty figures independently.
Moscow's United Nations ambassador, speaking in New York, said the Russian army did not pose a threat to civilians.
Images from the US satellite company Maxar showed a Russian military convoy stretching over 27km and moving closer to the capital, Kyiv, which remains under Ukrainian government control.
The United States expects Russian forces to try to encircle Kyiv in the coming days and could become more aggressive out of frustration with their slow advance, said a senior US defence official.
On Kyiv's streets, signboards normally used for traffic alerts showed the message: "Putin lost the war. The whole world is with Ukraine".
Fighting also occurred throughout Sunday night around the port city of Mariupol, said the head of the Donetsk regional administration, Mr Pavlo Kyrylenko. He did not say whether Russian forces had gained or lost ground.
Russian forces seized two small cities in southeastern Ukraine and the area around a nuclear power plant, according to the Interfax news agency.
Ceasefire talks, Western sanctions
Talks between the two sides were held on the border with strong Russian ally Belarus - a launch pad for invading Russian troops.
Ukraine had said it wanted to secure an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian forces. The Kremlin declined to comment on its goals.
The meeting ended with officials heading back to capitals for further consultations before a second round of negotiations, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told reporters.
"The Russian side, unfortunately, still has a very biased view of the destructive processes it has launched," Mr Podolyak tweeted.
Russian delegation head Vladimir Medinsky told reporters: "The most important thing is that we agreed to continue negotiating."
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a "special operation" that it says is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its southern neighbour's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.
The Western-led response has been emphatic, with sanctions that effectively cut off Moscow's financial institutions from Western markets.
The United States imposed new sanctions on Russia's central bank and other sources of wealth on Monday, and many Western companies began to disentangle themselves from their Russian operations.
Over the weekend, some Russian banks were barred from the SWIFT international payments system.
The rouble plunged 32 per cent against the dollar before recouping about half of its losses, and Russia's central bank cranked up its key interest rate to 20 per cent from 9.5 per cent. Authorities told export-focused companies to be ready to sell foreign currency.
In Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said EU sanctions would have a cost for Europe "but we have to be ready to pay the price, or we will have to pay a much higher price in the future".
The invasion has brought relations between the United States and Russia, the world's two biggest nuclear powers, to their worst point in years.
The United States expelled 12 Russian diplomats at the United Nations, citing national security concerns. Russia described the move as "hostile".
Russia has not shown interest in creating a "deconfliction mechanism" with the United States over the Ukrainian conflict, the Pentagon said on Monday. The two countries have such a mechanism in other areas, like Syria, where both operate in close proximity.
Battle for cities
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said at least 102 civilians in Ukraine had been killed since Thursday but the real figure could be "considerably higher".
Ukraine's health ministry said on Sunday 352 civilians, including 14 children, had been killed since the beginning of the invasion.
More than half a million people have fled to neighbouring countries, according to the UN refugee agency.
Partners in the US-led NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) defence alliance were providing Ukraine with air-defence missiles and anti-tank weapons, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.
The Kremlin accused the EU of hostile behaviour, saying weapons supplies to Ukraine were destabilising and proved that Russia was right in its efforts to demilitarise its neighbour.
But there was support for Ukraine from unexpected quarters.
US technology firm Microsoft said it had provided threat intelligence and defensive suggestions to Ukrainian officials about attacks on a range of targets, and also advised the government about attempted cyber-thefts of data.
And European soccer's governing body, UEFA, scrapped sponsorship by the Russian state gas giant Gazprom reported to be worth 40 million euros (S$60 million) a season, and Uefa and the global federation Fifa suspended all Russian teams until further notice.