Street fighting rages in Ukraine as talks mooted

Russian forces face stiff resistance: Moscow fires cruise missiles at military targets in Ukraine, saying Kyiv has rejected talks

By: AFP
Published: 07:36 AM, 27 Feb, 2022
Street fighting rages in Ukraine as talks mooted
Caption: Ukrainians rushing to take shelter as an air raid siren wails in Kyiv.–AFP
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Street fighting raged in Ukraine's second-biggest city on Sunday after Russian forces pierced through Ukrainian lines, as both sides said they were ready for talks to halt a conflict that has forced an estimated 260,000 people to flee their homes.

Machine gun fire and explosions could be heard in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine and an AFP journalist saw the wreckage of a Russian armoured vehicle smouldering and several others abandoned.

On the fourth day of an invasion by Russia that has sent shockwaves around the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky turned down Moscow's offer of a meeting in Belarus, which has allowed Russian troops passage to attack Ukraine.

Zelensky said Ukraine had proposed Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Istanbul and Baku as possible alternative locations for any talks.

"Any other city in a country from whose territory missiles do not fly would suit us," Zelensky said.

"The past night in Ukraine was brutal," he said. "They fight against everyone. They fight against all living things -- against kindergartens, against residential buildings and even against ambulances."

Ukraine has reported 198 civilian deaths, including three children, since the invasion began.

President Vladimir Putin has defied crippling Western sanctions on Russia's economy and international pariah status for his country to press ahead with the air, ground and sea assault.

Apart from the attack on Kharkiv, located near the Russian border, Moscow also claimed it was "entirely" besieging the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson and the city of Berdyansk in the southeast.

Ukrainian officials also said that a gas pipeline in eastern Kharkiv and an oil depot near the capital Kyiv were targeted overnight.

The claims could not be independently verified.

Many Kyiv residents spent another night in shelters, but the morning was relatively calm and a strict blanket curfew is in place until Monday.

- Appeal to fight for Ukraine -

Russia on Saturday ordered its forces to advance further into Ukraine "from all directions" but soldiers have encountered fierce resistance from Ukrainian troops, the intensity of which has likely surprised Moscow, according to Western sources.

Ukraine's army said it held the line against an assault on Kyiv, but was fighting Russian "sabotage groups" that had infiltrated the city.

"We will fight until we have liberated our country," a defiant Zelensky said in a video message on Saturday.

He also said Ukraine had "derailed" Moscow's plan to overthrow him and urged Russians to pressure Putin into stopping the conflict.

On Sunday, Ukraine's general staff said the 44-year-old leader was urging any foreigners to come to Ukraine "and fight side by side with the Ukrainians against Russian war criminals".

"There is no greater contribution which you can make for the sake of peace," the general staff said in a Facebook post, adding that the foreign fighters would form part of an "International Legion for the Territorial Defence of Ukraine".

Russian forces advance

Moscow ordered its troops to advance in Ukraine "from all directions" on Saturday, as the Ukrainian capital Kyiv imposed a blanket curfew after fighting in the city that saw Russian troops pushed back. 

Ukrainian officials said 198 civilians, including three children, had been killed since Russia invaded on Thursday, and warned Russian saboteurs were active in Kyiv as explosions rocked the capital, forcing residents to flee to safety underground.

Moscow said it fired cruise missiles at military targets, and would "develop the offensive from all directions" after accusing Ukraine of having "rejected" talks.

But, on day three of Russia's invasion, defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed his country would never give in to the Kremlin. Washington said the invading force had a "lack of momentum".

Ukraine's army said it held back an assault on the capital -- but was fighting Russian "sabotage groups" which had infiltrated the city. 

Zelensky said in a video message: "We will fight until we have liberated our country."

He earlier said Ukraine had "derailed" Moscow's plan to overthrow him and urged Russians to pressure President Vladimir Putin into stopping the conflict.

The Pentagon estimates that half of the invasion force built up by Russia on Ukraine's borders in recent months is now inside the country. 

But there had been a "lack of momentum over the last 24 hours", and the Russian military had still not gained air superiority over the country, a US official said.

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- 'I was trembling' -

Ignoring warnings from the West, Putin on Thursday unleashed a full-scale invasion that the UN refugee agency says has forced almost 150,000 people to flee to next-door countries.

Tens of thousands more are estimated to be displaced within Ukraine, with many heading west away from intense clashes.

In neighbouring Romania, Olga, 36, was among hundreds to have crossed the Danube river with her three young children to safety.

"My husband came with us as far as the border, before returning to Kyiv to fight," she said.

Thousands more made their way to Poland by train.

"Attacks were everywhere," said Diana, a 37-year-old who fled the Ukrainian capital. "My mother is still in Kyiv."

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In the capital, residents sought sanctuary in subway stations and cellars, while Zelensky announced a baby girl had been born on the metro.

The city said anyone outside after 5:00 pm (1500 GMT) would be considered "members of the enemy's sabotage and reconnaissance groups".

The curfew will last until 8:00 am on Monday.

Yulia Snitko, a pregnant 32-year-old, said she had sheltered in the basement of her Kyiv apartment block on Friday night, fearing premature labour.

"It was more than one hour of huge explosions. I was trembling," she said.

Thousands around the world demonstrated their solidarity with Ukraine on Saturday.

Zelensky said he asked UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to strip Russia of its vote at the UN Security Council as punishment for the invasion. 

Earlier, he thanked "partners" for sending weapons and equipment, while Washington announced $350 million of new military assistance.

Berlin said it would send Kyiv 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles, in a major U-turn from its longstanding policy of not exporting weapons to war zones.

Paris said it would deliver more arms to Ukraine.

- 'Paralyse' Russian assets -

The European Union said it would remove "certain" Russian banks from the SWIFT bank messaging system and "paralyse" Russian central bank assets.

The move would cripple Russia's trade with most of the world.

Germany had previously resisted the SWIFT move over concerns Russia could cut off key gas supplies.

The Kremlin has so far brushed off sanctions, including those targeting Putin personally, as a sign of Western impotence.

The UN Security Council will convene Sunday afternoon to vote on a resolution calling for a special session of the General Assembly over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, diplomats have said.

NATO said it will deploy its 40,000-strong rapid response force to eastern Europe for the first time, but stressed it will not send forces to Ukraine.

On the ground early Saturday, AFP reporters in Kyiv heard occasional blasts of what soldiers said were artillery and Grad missiles being fired in an area northwest of the city centre.

There were also loud explosions in downtown.

Emergency services said a high-rise apartment block was hit overnight, with a hole five floors high blown out of the building.

Kyiv's mayor Vitali Klitschko said the building had been hit by a missile, and that Russian forces were battling to advance from the northwest and west of the city.

"The enemy has not broken into the city, but sabotage groups are operating in Kyiv," he said later.

- 'Untrue information' -

Also earlier Saturday, AFP saw a destroyed Ukrainian military truck in the city centre and a civilian volunteer digging a trench for soldiers.

Ukrainian army tanks were also seen deploying across downtown Kyiv, but the streets were otherwise mostly empty and quiet except for the sound of air raid sirens and birdsong.

Putin has said Russia's offensive is to defend Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The rebels have been fighting Ukrainian government forces for eight years in a conflict in which more than 14,000 people have been killed.

Putin called the current conflict a "special military operation" and Russia's communications regulator on Saturday told independent media to remove reports describing it as an "assault, invasion, or declaration of war".

The regulator accused the outlets of spreading "untrue information" about the conflict.

Russia also released images of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, with a masked soldier saying radiation was "under control".

The publication appeared to be part of a major Kremlin propaganda campaign downplaying the conflict domestically.

Russian invaders 'frustrated' by stiff resistance: Pentagon

Russia's invasion force is being slowed and frustrated by unexpectedly stiff resistance from Ukrainian troops, keeping them outside Kyiv, a senior US defense official said Saturday.

The United States and Western allies are still able to deliver arms into the country to bolster the Ukraine military, and Washington plans to send more in the coming days to help them fight both Russian armor on the ground and assaults from the air, the official said.

According to Pentagon information, Russia now has at least 50 percent of its massive invasion force inside Ukraine.

But the force is making slow progress on its original three-front thrust due to unexpectedly stiff resistance, the official told reporters, on grounds of anonymity.

"We have indications that the Russians are increasingly frustrated by their lack of momentum over the last 24 hours, particularly in the north parts of Ukraine," the official said.

In Moscow Saturday the defense ministry said the Russian army had been ordered to broaden its offensive after Kyiv declined an offer of talks in Russia-allied Belarus.

"Today all units were given orders to develop the advance from all directions in accordance with the operation's plans," Russian army spokesman Igor Konashenkov announced.

Ukrainian officials said 198 civilians, including three children, had been killed since Russia invaded, as a defiant President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed his country would never give in to the Kremlin.

- US sending more weapons -

The Pentagon believes the Russian invasion, utilizing a force of more than 150,000 troops, heavy armor, and missile and air barrages, has not progressed nearly as fast as hoped since it began just before dawn on Thursday.

"Ukrainian air defenses, including aircraft, do continue to be operable and continue to engage and deny access to Russian aircraft in places over the country," the US official said.

The bulk of the Russian troops remained some 30 kilometers (18 miles) outside of Kyiv, the official said, while stressing that battlefield situations were actively changing.

Ukraine's army said Saturday it had held back an assault on the capital but was fighting Russian "sabotage groups" which had infiltrated the city.

Ukrainian resistance remains "viable," and Western allies are still able to get weapons and other supplies to them despite the Russian attack, the US official said.

The Russians "have been frustrated by... a very determined resistance and it has slowed them down."

"Based on what we've observed, that this resistance is greater than what the Russians expected," the official said.

The Russians have been more successful in the push from Crimea and the Black Sea in the south.

"But in the north, that's where the stiffest resistance is. There is still heavy fighting in and around Kharkiv," as well as north of Kyiv, the official said.

On the same day that Western allies announced they were hoping to cripple Russia by taking the key step of banishing a number of Russian banks from the SWIFT interbank system, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also announced that Washington will provide $350 million in additional military equipment to Ukrainian forces.

"This package will include further lethal defensive assistance to help Ukraine address the armored, airborne, and other threats it is now facing," he said in a statement.

The US defense official said the new arms will include more Javelin portable anti-tank missiles and other items, without being specific. The official declined to answer whether they would include anti-aircraft weapons.

The United States and European allies are still able to deliver lethal weapons aid to the Ukraine military despite the Russian invasion.

"They have received security assistance from us just within the last couple of days," the official said.

AFP

Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.