Ukrainian and Russian troops lock in street battles in capital Kyiv

Ukraine says 198 civilians killed in Russian invasion: NATO deploys response force for first time: Russia vetoes UN resolution deploring 'aggression' in Ukraine: France to send 500 troops to Romania

By: AFP
Published: 07:47 AM, 26 Feb, 2022
Ukrainian and Russian troops lock in street battles in capital Kyiv
Caption: Ukrainian service members look for unexploded shells after a fight with Russian raiding group in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.–AFP
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Ukrainian soldiers repulsed a Russian attack in the capital, the military said Saturday after a defiant President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed his pro-Western country would not be bowed by Moscow. 

"I am here. We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state, because our weapons are our truth," Zelensky said, as Russia said it had fired cruise missiles at Ukraine's military infrastructure.

Wearing olive green military-style clothing and looking tired but determined, Zelensky said: "Our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children and we will protect all of this. 

"This is what I wanted to tell you. Glory to Ukraine!" 

It was the third day since Russian leader Vladimir Putin unleashed a full-scale invasion that has killed dozens of people, forced more than 50,000 to flee Ukraine in just 48 hours and sparked fears of a wider conflict in Europe.

Ukraine's health minister said Saturday that 198 civilians, including three children, have been killed so far by Russian forces attacking the pro-Western country. "Unfortunately, according to operative data, at the hands of the invaders we have 198 dead, including 3 children, 1,115 wounded, including 33 children," Health Minister Viktor Lyashko wrote on Facebook. 

French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the world must brace for a long war.

"This crisis will last, this war will last and all the crises that come with it will have lasting consequences," Macron said at an agriculture fair in France. "We must be prepared". 

- Body on the pavement -

A high-rise apartment block was hit by shelling overnight in Kyiv as the fighting raged, emergency services said. 

The authorities said the number of victims was "being specified" and that an evacuation was underway. 

They posted a picture online of the tower block with a hole covering at least five floors blasted into the side and rubble strewn across the street below.

Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko said online that the building had been hit by a "projectile". 

In Kyiv's city centre, AFP journalists heard loud explosions early Saturday.

"Heavy fighting continues," the State Special Communications Service of Ukraine posted on its telegram account around 0330 GMT.

Earlier Saturday, Ukraine's military said Russia had "attacked one of the military units on Victory Avenue in Kyiv" but that the assault had been "repulsed".

It also reported another incident northwest of the capital. 

AFP saw a dead man in civilian clothes lying sprawled on the pavement as nearby medics rushed to help another man whose car was crushed by an armoured vehicle.

Kyiv said 137 people, including soldiers and civilians, have been killed.

Meanwhile, the Defence Ministry said "two enemy targets were shot down" -- identifying them as a Russian SU-25 helicopter and a military bomber -- near the separatist zone in the east.

A Russian transport plane had also been "knocked down" near Vasylkiv, a town roughly 30 kilometres (19 miles) southwest of Kyiv, the ministry added on its official Facebook page.

Earlier, small arms fire and explosions were heard in the capital's northern district Obolonsky as what appeared to be an advance party of Russia's invasion force left a trail of destruction.

Ukrainian forces reported fighting with Russian armoured units in two locations between 40-80 kilometres north of Kyiv.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said 2,800 Russian soldiers had been killed, without providing evidence. Moscow has yet to report on casualties.

Western nations announced personal sanctions targeting Putin as his soldiers were advancing into Ukraine Friday, with Zelensky urging the nation to defend itself. "This night will be more difficult than the day. Many cities of our state are under attack," Zelensky had said. "Special attention on Kyiv –- we cannot lose the capital," he said in an earlier address.

"I am turning to our defenders, male and female, on all fronts: this night the enemy will use all the forces it has to crush our defence in a treacherous, harsh and inhumane way," he said. "Tonight they will attempt a storming" of the capital, he added in an apparent reference to Kyiv.

Zelensky, who earlier called for a stronger response from the West, said he spoke to leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden.

"We have agreed on more aid, more support, significant support for our state," he said.

After Ukrainian forces fought Russian troops advancing on the capital Friday, not long after midnight Zelensky warned the nation to stay on its guard.

Zelensky, who had earlier called for a stronger response from the West, said he spoke leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden.

"We have agreed on more aid, more support, significant support for our state," he said.

- 'Point of no return' - 

The United States, Canada, Britain and the European Union announced further sanctions against Russia on Friday, including against Putin himself and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia said the sanctions against the pair were "a demonstration of the complete impotence of the foreign policy" of the West.

"We have reached the line after which the point of no return begins," Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.

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Moscow also vetoed -- as expected -- a UN Security Council resolution that deplored "in the strongest terms" Russia's invasion, while China, Indian and the United Arab Emirates abstained.

Putin had earlier described the Ukrainian government as "terrorists" and "a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis".

"Take power in your own hands," he told the Ukrainian military in a televised address, urging it to topple Zelensky.

The Ukrainian leader responded early Friday by posting a self-shot video on social media of himself on a Kyiv street, vowing to stay and defend the capital.

"We're all here. Our military is here. Citizens in society are here. We're all here defending our independence, our country, and it will stay this way," Zelensky said.

The US-led military alliance NATO said the Ukrainians were putting up a stiff resistance to the Russian threat.

"The Ukrainian forces are fighting bravely and are actually able to inflict damage on the invading Russian forces," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said after the alliance held an emergency summit on Friday.

NATO said it was deploying its rapid response forces for the first time ever to bolster defences on the alliance's eastern flank.

- Body on the pavement -

Earlier on Friday, small arms fire and explosions were heard in Kyiv's northern district of Obolonsky as what appeared to be an advance party of Russia's invasion force left a trail of destruction.

AFP saw a dead man in civilian clothes lying sprawled on the pavement as, nearby, medics rushed to help another man whose car was crushed under the tracks of an armoured vehicle.

In contrast, the city centre felt like a ghost town.

Intersections around the government district were manned by green armoured vehicles and machine-gun toting soldiers in balaclavas.

Ukrainian forces reported fighting with Russian armoured units in two locations between 40-80 kilometres (25-50 miles) north of Kyiv

Ukraine urged "citizens to inform us of troop movements, to make Molotov cocktails, and neutralise the enemy".

Kyiv said that 137 people, including soldiers and civilians, have been killed so far.

The Ukrainian defence ministry said that 2,800 Russian soldiers had been killed, without providing evidence. Moscow has yet to give a report on casualties.

- 'Not real diplomacy' -

Lavrov said Moscow was ready to talk but only if Ukraine's armed forces "lay down their arms", adding that "nobody intends to occupy Ukraine".

A Kremlin spokesman said Putin was ready to send a delegation to Belarusian capital Minsk "for talks with a Ukrainian delegation".

But the US swiftly dismissed the offer.

After invading Ukraine, "now we see Moscow suggesting diplomacy take place at the barrel of a gun. This is not real diplomacy," State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

The UN said that more than 50,000 Ukrainians had fled the country in the past two days, calling for "safe unimpeded access" for aid operations.

Streams of people in cars and on foot were seen crossing into Hungary, Poland and Romania while hundreds camped out in a train station in the Polish border city of Przemysl.

About 100,000 are believed to be internally displaced, and in Kyiv, many residents fled their homes and took shelter in the city's subway system.

- 'Harshest' ever EU sanctions -

The EU on Friday added Putin and Lavrov to the bloc's list of sanctions, in what foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the "harshest" package ever drawn up by the bloc.

The UK government soon followed suit, ordering all assets of both men frozen. 

The US and Canada then announced they would also impose sanctions on the pair. with the US measures including a travel ban.

But, despite Zelensky calling on Western allies to expel Moscow from the SWIFT banking transfer system, numerous EU countries including Germany, Hungary and Italy have been reluctant over fears Russia could cut off gas supplies.

There was also response in the cultural and sporting worlds, with the Formula One cancelling the Russian Grand Prix and the International Olympic Committee urging all sports federations worldwide to call off events in Russia.

Russia was barred from participating in this year's Eurovision Song Contest.

NATO deploys response force for first time

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Friday the alliance was deploying its rapid response force for the first time ever to bolster defences in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"It is still a fluid situation. What we have seen is that the Ukrainian forces are fighting bravely and are actually able to inflict damage on the invading Russian forces," Stoltenberg said after a video summit of NATO leaders.

"It is a full invasion of Ukraine. They are moving towards Kyiv and the stated goal is to change the government of Ukraine."

Stoltenberg's warned that the Kremlin's aggression had created a "new normal", threatening Europe's broader security beyond non-NATO member Ukraine.

"We have already strengthened our deterrence and defence," Stoltenberg said.

"Yesterday, allies activated our defence plans and, as a result, we are deploying elements of the NATO Response Force (NRF) on land, at sea, and in the air to further strengthen our posture and to respond quickly to any contingency."

The step is the latest by NATO aimed at beefing up its defences after allies spearheaded by the United States rushed thousands of troops to eastern members as the Kremlin moved on Ukraine

"We have over 100 jets at high alert, operating in over 30 different locations and over 120 ships from the high north to the Mediterranean," Stoltenberg said.  

"This is to preserve peace to prevent an attack and to prevent that the war which is going on in Ukraine spills over to any NATO allied country." 

He did not give any details on where the response forces were being sent, saying it was up to NATO's top military commander.

Created in 2003, the NRF is made up of 40,000 personnel and includes an 8,000-strong high-readiness contingent with air, sea and special operations soldiers that can be deployed within days.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States had troops currently in Europe, plus 7,000 ordered to deploy to German this week, and others on standby at home.

He said which troops and how many depend on the specific needs of NATO.

"Whatever those requirements are... the United States is ready to lean forward as much as possible," Kirby said.

He stressed the NRF was to protect NATO countries, not to engage in fighting in Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance.

However, he said, the trigger for activating the NRF "has been this unlawful invasion by Russia into Ukraine."

"We're going to do what we need to do to defend every inch of NATO territory." he added.

Russia vetoes UN resolution

Russia, as expected, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Friday that deplored "in the strongest terms" the country's "aggression" against Ukraine and demanded the immediate withdrawal of its troops.

Eleven of the council's 15 members voted for the motion, which was co-written by the United States and Albania. China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstained.

The resolution was always doomed to fail because of Moscow's veto power as a permanent member of the council.

However the debate offered member nations an opportunity to voice condemnation of President Vladimir Putin's decision to launch a full-scale offensive against Russia's neighbor.

"Let me make one thing clear," US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said after the vote. "Russia, you can veto this resolution, but you cannot veto our voices, you cannot veto the truth, you cannot veto our principles, you cannot veto the Ukrainian people."

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The wording of the draft text put before the Security Council was watered down in the hours before the vote to gain more support.

The word "condemns" was replaced by "deplores" and a reference to Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows members to take military action to restore peace, was deleted.

The resolution reaffirmed the sovereignty of Ukraine and called for Russia to "immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine."

Ultimately, more than 70 countries co-sponsored the resolution.

"Make no mistake, Russia is isolated. It has no support for the invasion of Ukraine," said Britain's ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward.

Before the vote, Thomas-Greenfield described Russia's attack as "so bold, so brazen, that it threatens our international system as we know it.

"We have a solemn obligation to not look away... At the very minimum, we have an obligation to object," she said.

"Vote yes if you believe Russia should be held to account for its actions. Vote no or abstain if you do not uphold the charter and align yourselves with the aggressive and unprovoked actions of Russia."

- Assembly vote -

Moscow's UN envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, denounced the resolution as "anti-Russian and anti-Ukrainian."

"It is difficult for us to compete with the US in terms of the number of invasions carried out. You are in no position to moralize," he said.

Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya led the council chamber in a moment of silence, asking members to "pray for peace." He also told Nebenzia to "pray for salvation."

"Russia is keen on continuing it's Nazi-style course of action," said Kyslytsya, whose speech was widely applauded by members.

Earlier, he had posed with a Ukrainian flag and European ambassadors under Picasso's Guernica tapestry which hangs outside the entrance to the council chamber.

Residents attend an open training organised for civilians by war veterans and volunteers who teach the basic weapons handling and first aid on one of Kiyv's city beaches.–AFP

Explaining his country's abstention, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun referenced NATO expansion, saying "Russia's legitimate security aspirations should be given attention and addressed properly."

After the vote, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: "Soldiers need to return to their barracks."

"Leaders need to turn to the path of dialogue and peace," he pleaded.  

Russia, which currently holds the rotating Security Council presidency, will likely face another vote on a similar resolution before the wider UN General Assembly which is formed of all 193 member countries.

Moscow does not have a veto there and the resolution could be passed by a substantial margin, although it would be non-binding.

The General Assembly held a similar vote in 2014 condemning Russia's seizure of Crimea, which obtained 100 votes in support.

Moscow had earlier vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning its actions in Crimea. Thirteen countries supported it with China abstaining.

US to impose sanctions on Putin and Lavrov

The United States said Friday it would impose sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, following similar announcements by Britain and the European Union in the wake of Moscow's attack on Ukraine.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that a travel ban would be part of the sanctions.

Following the spate of measures, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Russian television that "we have reached the line after which the point of no return begins."

The United States' new measures come in addition to those it already announced, including a tranche of sanctions that will hit four Russian banks, cut off more than half of Russia's technology imports, and target several of the country's oligarchs.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki additionally announced Friday on Twitter that sanctions would be imposed on the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the country's sovereign wealth fund.

Meanwhile in Brussels, the EU's sanctions package -- the second adopted this week as Russia's military build-up moved into a full-on assault -- was approved by leaders in an overnight summit.

It hammers Russia's financial, energy and transport sectors, and curbs the ability of Russians to keep large amounts of cash in EU banks.

It also expands the number of Russians on the EU's list of sanctioned individuals barred from entry and whose EU assets are blocked.

Following suit, Britain's Treasury issued a financial sanctions notice against Putin and Lavrov, adding them to a list of Russian oligarchs who have already had their property and bank accounts in Britain frozen.

In addition to the sanctions, Psaki said that any moves by Russia "going after" Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who alongside key aides has vowed to stay and defend Kyiv, would be a "horrific act."

Putin has called on the Ukrainian army to overthrow the government whose leaders he describes as "terrorists" and "a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis."

Putin and Lavrov join a list of figures sanctioned by the United States which includes Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

France to send 500 troops to Romania

France is to deploy 500 military personnel as part of NATO forces to Romania after Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine, the army chief of staff said Friday.

"NATO has decided to reinforce its presence to send a very clear sign of strategic solidarity, to position forces in Romania," Thierry Burkhard told Radio France Internationale and broadcaster France24.

"We will send around 500 men with armoured vehicles."

He said France would also maintain a military presence in Estonia, which borders Russia, beyond March.

In view of "the war in Ukraine, it has been decided we will maintain our presence" of 200 to 250 men with armoured vehicles in the Baltic nation, he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron in recent weeks had thrown his energy into diplomacy in an attempt to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But Russia's military vehicles rolled over the border early Thursday, with Ukrainian forces fighting a Russian push towards the capital Kyiv.

The conflict has already claimed at least dozens of lives and displaced tens of thousands of people. 

AFP

Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.