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Groups of Ukrainian refugees walk along the road between Lviv and Shehyni, in Volytsya, Ukraine on Saturday. — AP

KYIV: Desperate civilians fled besieged cities in Ukraine on Tuesday as fresh fighting raged between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

On the 13th day of the conflict the number of refugees flooding across Ukraine’s borders to escape towns devastated by shelling and air strikes passed two million, the UN said.

Buses streamed out through an evacuation corridor from the northeastern city of Sumy — where 21 people were killed in air strikes overnight — while civilians on foot took an unofficial escape route out of the bombarded Kyiv suburb of Irpin.

But Ukraine accused Russia of attacking a corridor from the beleaguered southern port city of Mariupol, where aid workers said tens of thousands were living in “apocalyptic” conditions.

Kyiv has branded the corridors a publicity stunt as many of the exit routes lead into Russia or its ally Belarus. Both sides accuse each other of ceasefire violations.

US President Joe Biden said Ukraine would “never be a victory” for Putin, as he announced the measures targeting the energy sector that props up the Russian economy and its war effort.

The Pentagon estimated that between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian soldiers had been killed so far. Russia said on March 2 that 498 Russian troops had been killed in Ukraine.

Russian troops are slowly encroaching on Kyiv despite intense efforts by outgunned Ukrainian forces, and moving faster through the east and north of the country.

Despite the sound of nearby shelling in Irpin, seen as a critical point for the advance on the capital, civilians fled in icy wind and thick snowfall, reporters saw.

People waited in a long line to cross over the Irpin river on makeshift walkways of planks and mangled metal, after the Ukrainians blew up the bridge leading into the capital to hamper any Russian advance.

“I didn’t want to leave, but there’s nobody left in the homes around us, no water, no gas and no electricity,” Larissa Prokopets, 43, said.

She said she was leaving after several days spent “hiding in the basement” of her home, which kept “shaking” due to bombardment nearby.

Russia had refused calls for a humanitarian corridor in Irpin and the nearby suburbs of Bucha and Gostomel “although we had everything ready for this”, Ukrainian interior ministry official Anton Gerashchenko said.

Evacuations had however begun in Sumy, near the Russian border and 350km east of Kyiv, where Russia had formally declared a humanitarian corridor, officials said.

Dozens of buses had already left in the direction of Lokhvytsia, to the southwest, with the corridor designed to evacuate civilians, including Chinese, Indians and other foreigners, officials said.

Ukraine’s defence ministry also accused Russia on Tuesday of violating a ceasefire to ease a days-long blockade of Mariupol, describing it as “genocide”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced what he called un-kept promises by the West to protect his country, and renewed calls for a no-fly zone that leaders have so far dismissed.

“It’s been 13 days we’ve been hearing promises, 13 days we’ve been told we’ll be helped in the air, that there will be planes,” Zelensky said on a video broadcast on Telegram.

Global outrage mounted over the invasion and the plight of civilians caught up in the bloodshed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Mariupol residents faced “atrocious” conditions and were running out of food, water and medical supplies.

“The bottom line today is that this situation is really apocalyptic for people,” ICRC head of media Ewan Watson said in Geneva.

At least 474 civilians have been killed since the start of Russia’s assault on its ex-Soviet neighbour, according to the UN, although it believes the real figures to be “considerably higher”. The onslaught has created a huge refugee crisis for European countries that have taken in Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, particularly Poland. “It doesn’t stop,” Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said as he announced that two million people had fled.

Russia's military will hold fire and open humanitarian corridors in several Ukrainian cities on Monday, the Defence Ministry said, after fighting halted weekend evacuation efforts and civilian casualties from Russia's invasion mounted.

The corridors were to be opened at 10am Moscow time (0700 GMT) from the capital Kyiv as well as the cities of Kharkiv, Mariupol and Sumy and are being set up at the personal request of French President Emmanuel Macron, the ministry said.

According to maps published by the RIA news agency, the corridor from Kyiv will lead to Russian ally Belarus, and civilians from Kharkiv will only have a corridor leading to Russia. Corridors from Mariupol and Sumy will lead both to other Ukrainian cities and to Russia.

Those who want to leave Kyiv will also be able to be airlifted to Russia, the ministry said, adding it would use drones to monitor the evacuation.

"Attempts by the Ukrainian side to deceive Russia and the whole civilised world ... are useless this time," the ministry said.

Russia's invasion has been condemned around the world, sent more than 1.5 million Ukrainians fleeing abroad, and triggered sweeping Western-led sanctions aimed at crippling the Russian economy.

Russia calls the campaign it launched on February 24 a "special military operation". It has repeatedly denied attacking civilian areas and says it has no plans to occupy Ukraine.

Oil prices soared to their highest levels since 2008 in Asian trade after the Biden administration said it was exploring banning imports of Russian oil. Russia provides seven per cent of global supply.

Japan, which counts Russia as its fifth-biggest supplier of crude oil, is also in discussion with the United States and European countries about possibly banning Russian oil imports, Kyodo News reported on Monday.

Europe relies on Russia for crude oil and natural gas but has become more open to the idea of banning Russian products, a source familiar with the discussions told Reuters.

The general staff of Ukraine's armed forces said Russian forces were "beginning to accumulate resources for the storming of Kyiv", a city of 3m, after days of slow progress in their main advance south from Belarus.

Read more: Why Russian military hasn’t had smooth sailing in Ukraine, yet

About 200,000 people remained trapped in the besieged Black Sea port of Mariupol, most sleeping underground to escape more than six days of shelling by Russian forces that has cut off food, water, power and heating, according to the Ukrainian authorities.

About half of the 400,000 people in the city were due to be evacuated on Sunday but that effort was aborted for a second day when a ceasefire plan collapsed as the sides accused each other of failing to stop shooting and shelling.

Ukrainian authorities said on Monday the southern city of Mykolayiv was being shelled.

'Arc of autocracy'

The civilian death toll from hostilities across Ukraine since Russia launched the invasion was 364, including more than 20 children, the United Nations said on Sunday, adding that hundreds were wounded.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States had seen credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians and it was documenting them to support a potential war crimes investigation.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned Russians who committed atrocities against civilians they would face punishment.

"For you, there will be no peaceful place on this earth, except for the grave," he said in a televised evening address.

As anti-war protests took place around the world, Ukraine renewed its appeal to the West to toughen sanctions and also requested more weapons, including Russian-made planes.

Blinken said the United States was considering how it could backfill aircraft for Poland if it decided to supply its warplanes to Ukraine.

Putin says he wants a "demilitarised", "denazified" and neutral Ukraine, and on Saturday likened Western sanctions "to a declaration of war".

New Zealand became the latest country on Monday to announce it will impose sanctions on Russia, including a plan to stop superyachts, ships and aircraft from entering its waters or airspace.

South Korea toughened its financial sanctions against Russia by banning transactions with Russia's central bank.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged China to act on its declarations of promoting world peace and join the effort to stop Russia's invasion of Ukraine, warning that the world was in danger of being reshaped by an "arc of autocracy".

"No country will have a bigger impact on concluding this terrible war in Ukraine than China," Morrison said in response to a question after a speech at the Lowy Institute think tank.

Western sanctions have pushed many companies to exit investments in Russia, while some Russian banks have been shut out of global financial payment systems, driving down the rouble and forcing Moscow to jack up interest rates.

On Sunday, more companies cut ties with Russia: American Express Co, Netflix Inc, accounting giants KPMG and PwC, and video sharing app TikTok.

But Chinese firms are staying put.

DUBAI (AP): A global body focused on fighting money laundering has placed the United Arab Emirates on its so called “gray list” over concerns that the global trade hub isn’t doing enough to stop criminals and militants from hiding wealth there. The decision late Friday night by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force puts the UAE, home to Dubai and oil-rich Abu Dhabi, on a list of 23 countries including fellow Mideast nations Jordan, Syria and Yemen.

While not expected to dent business in the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula home to a multitude of economic free zones and real estate ventures, it could strike at the country’s carefully managed business-friendly image. Ratings agencies and other financial institutions also consider such a listing as a risk, which can affect interest rates for loans. While praising the UAE’s “significant progress,” the body known as FATF said more needed to be done.

Already, the UAE has established a corporate registry and signed extradition agreements with other nations. However, the UAE long has been known as a place where bags of cash, diamonds, gold and other valuables can be moved into and through. In recent years, the State Department had described “bulk cash smuggling” as “a significant problem” in the Emirates.

A 2018 report by the Washington based Center for Advanced Defense Studies, relying on leaked Dubai property data, found that war profiteers, terror financiers and drug traffickers sanctioned by the U.S. had used the city-state’s boom-and-bust real estate market as a safe haven for their money. Emirati officials on Twitter and its state-run WAM news agency rushed to reassure investors that the UAE remained a safe, regulated place to do business and would address the international concerns.

Smoke rises from the damaged training building of Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant following an attack with shell fire by Russian forces, in Energodar on Friday. — AFP

Russia declared a partial ceasefire on Saturday to allow humanitarian corridors out of the Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha, Russia's defence ministry said.

“From 10am Moscow time (0700 GMT), the Russian side declares a ceasefire and the opening of humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave Mariupol and Volnovakha,” Russian news agencies quoted the Russian defence ministry as saying.

Mariupol, a southern city of about 450,000 people on the Azov Sea, will begin evacuations at 0900 GMT, city hall announced on social media in a message that added, “it will be possible to leave the city by private transport.”

“A huge request to all drivers leaving the city, to contribute as much as possible to the evacuation of the civilian population — take people with you, fill vehicles as much as possible,” the statement said.


The announcement said the evacuation would last over several days to allow the entirety of the civilian population to exit the city.

In the statement, city officials told residents leaving in private vehicles that it was “strictly prohibited” to go off course from the evacuation routes.

Municipal buses were also departing from three locations in the city to help people leave, the message said.

Ukraine Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on social media that some 200,000 people were expected to be extracted from the city.

She wrote that a further 15,000 people would be brought from Volnovakha, a town of around 20,000 people some 60 kilometres from separatist-controlled Donetsk, a regional centre.

“This is not an easy decision, but, as I have always said, Mariupol is not its streets or houses. Mariupol is its population, it is you and me,” mayor Vadim Boychenko was quoted as saying in the statement.

With Russian troops surrounding the city, he said, “there is no other option but to allow residents — that is, you and me — to leave Mariupol safely,” he said.

Russia blocks Facebook, other sites

Meanwhile, Russia blocked Facebook and some other websites and passed a law that gave Moscow much stronger powers to crack down on journalism, prompting the BBCBloomberg and other foreign media to suspend reporting in the country.

War raged in Ukraine for a 10th day on Saturday as Russian troops besieged and bombarded cities.

The fighting has created over one million refugees, a barrage of sanctions that are increasingly isolating Moscow and fears in the West of a wider global conflict that has been unthought-of for decades.

Moscow says its invasion is a “special operation” to capture individuals it regards as dangerous nationalists, and has denied targeting civilians.

Ukraine's state service of special communications and protection of information says Russian forces have focussed efforts on encircling Kyiv and Kharkiv, the second-biggest city, while aiming to establish a land bridge to Crimea.

Kyiv, in the path of a Russian armoured column that has been stalled outside the Ukrainian capital for days, came under renewed assault, with explosions audible from the city centre.

Ukrainian media outlet Suspilne cited authorities in Sumy, about 300 kilometres east of Kyiv, as saying that there is a risk of fighting in the city's streets, urging residents to stay in shelters.

Russian forces also have encircled and shelled the southeastern port city of Mariupol — a key prize. There is no water, heat or electricity and food is running out, according to Mayor Vadym Boychenko.

“We are simply being destroyed,” he said.

President Vladimir Putin's actions have drawn almost universal condemnation, and many countries have imposed heavy sanctions as the West balances punishment with avoiding a widening of the conflict.

Fighting back in the information war, Russia's parliament passed a law on Friday imposing a prison term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military.

“This law will force punishment — and very tough punishment — on those who lied and made statements which discredited our armed forces,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

Russia is blocking Facebook for restricting state-backed channels and the websites of the BBCDeutsche Welle and Voice of America.

CNN and CBS News said they would stop broadcasting in Russia, and other outlets removed Russian-based journalists' bylines as they assessed the situation.

More sanctions on the way?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to press Washington for more help in a Zoom call with the full United States Senate at 9:30am ET (1430 GMT) on Saturday.

The United States is weighing cuts to imports of Russian oil and ways to minimise the impact on global supplies and consumers as lawmakers fast-track a bill that would ban Russian energy imports. Global oil prices surged over 20 per cent this week on fears of supply shortages, posing a risk to global economic growth.

At a meeting on Friday, Nato allies rejected Ukraine's appeal for no-fly zones, saying they were increasing support but that stepping in directly could make the situation worse.

“We have a responsibility ... to prevent this war from escalating beyond Ukraine because that would be even more dangerous, more devastating and would cause even more human suffering,” said Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Zelensky slammed the summit as “weak” and “confused”. “It was clear that not everyone considers the battle for Europe's freedom to be the number one goal,” he said.

More EU sanctions were coming, potentially including a ban on Russian-flagged ships in European ports and blocking imports of steel, timber, aluminium or coal, said Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Friday that talks with Ukraine on peacefully ending the conflict had “not moved from the starting point”, Tass news agency said.

The remains of a missile lie on a street in Vydubychi district of Kyiv, Ukraine on Friday. — AP

Humanitarian disaster

A humanitarian disaster is unfolding, with more than one million people seeking refuge in western Ukraine and in neighbouring countries.

Thousands of people waited for hours on Friday outside the railway station at the western city of Lviv to board trains heading to Poland. Families arrived with few belongings. Some were in wheelchairs, others accompanied by pet dogs and cats, uncertain about their fate.

“All we took with us is the bare necessities,” said Yana Tebyakina. “A change of clothes. That's it. All the rest we left behind, all our lives stayed back at home.”

A Friday attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, about 230 km west of Mariupol, brought the conflict to a perilous moment, but officials later said the facility was safe.

The plant and adjacent territory were now being guarded by Russian troops, Moscow's envoy to the United Nations said.

The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said the world had narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe.

The attack reflected a “dangerous new escalation” in Russia's invasion, she said during an emergency UN Security Council meeting, demanding assurances from Moscow that such an assault would not happen again.

Russian forces have made their biggest advances in the south, where they captured their first sizeable Ukrainian city, Kherson, this week. Bombing has worsened in recent days in the northeast cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said an advance had been halted on the southern port of Mykolayiv. If captured, the city of 500,000 people would be the biggest yet to fall.

ISLAMABAD: Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Sunday held a telephonic conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba and expressed “serious concerns” over the situation after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called for de-escalation through dialogue and diplomacy.

According to an official statement issued by the Foreign Office, Mr Qureshi during telephonic talk shared Pakistan’s perspective in detail at the situation, “underscoring the importance of de-escalation and stressing the indispensability of diplomacy”.

The foreign minister noted that Prime Minister Imran Khan in his recent visit to Moscow had regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and said Pakistan hoped diplomacy could avert a military conflict.

Mr Qureshi told the Ukrainian foreign minister that conflict was not in anyone’s interest and that developing countries were always hit the hardest economically in case of a conflict. He underlined Pakistan’s belief that disputes should be resolved through “dialogue and diplomacy”.

Mr Qureshi also took up the important matter of evacuation of Pakistani community and students in Ukraine and their safe return to Pakistan. He appreciated the role played by the Ukrainian authorities in the evacuation process.

According to Pakistan’s embassy in Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv, there were 3,000 students in Ukraine and majority of them had left the country. It said efforts were being made to evacuate 600-700 more students.

As many as 411 more Pakistanis, including 12 family members of the embassy staff, were evacuated on Sunday. There were 143 Pakistanis on the border posts and 15 at Lyiv and Ternopil reception desks. Another 101 Pakistanis were on their way to Lyiv from various other cities, including Kharkiv, Poltava and Kyiv.

The embassy claimed that nearly 90 per cent evacuation had been completed to ‘safe zone’ and the remaining would be completed in the next couple of days. The embassy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are actively engaging the Ukrainian government to expedite the process.

According to the statistics released by the embassy, as many as 358 Pakistanis were evacuated to Poland, 22 to Romania, six to Slovakia, three to Hungary and one Pakistani to Moldova. The statement said 21 Pakistanis had been brought back to Pakistan.

An earlier statement of the embassy said that the mission had been providing accommodation to the students in Ternopil. It said night curfew had been imposed in different cities, including Kharkiv, Lyiv, Ternopil and Kyiv.

It said that currently there was no safe place in Ukraine and even cities like Lyiv and Ternopil that were in the west of Ukraine had been hit.

“The government of Ukraine is dysfunctional, yet the embassy is making all-out efforts to facilitate evacuation of Pakistanis from the country,” said the statement.

Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan has said Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was all set to launch an evacuation plan to airlift Pakistani students standard in Poland.

Speaking at a news conference in Taxila, the minister said the Pakistanis would be airlifted from Warsaw, the capital of Poland, as landing on another airport near the Poland-Ukraine border was not possible due to technical reasons. He said Pakistan had initially planned to send two special flights of Boeing-777 to Warsaw to bring back Pakistanis, mostly students.

Foreign Minister Qureshi received a telephone call from Lord Tariq Ahmad, Minister for South Asia, North Africa, the UN and the Commonwealth at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on Sunday.

The two sides, according to an FO statement, exchanged views on Pakistan-UK relations and regional and international issues of mutual interest.

Mr Qureshi reiterated the importance Pakistan attached to its good relations and close cooperation with the UK and other European partners. He expressed the hope that the next round of strategic dialogue with the UK would take place in near future.

The two sides reiterated their resolve to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations this year.

On the developments in Ukraine, Mr Qureshi reiterated concerns at the heightened tensions and military escalation. Lord Ahmad thanked the foreign minister for the detailed exchange and expressed the hope that the UK and Pakistan would keep on working together on issues of common interest.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military command to put nuclear-armed forces on high alert on Sunday as Ukrainian fighters defending the city of Kharkiv said they had repelled an attack by invading Russian troops.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that “President Putin is continuing to escalate this war in a manner that is totally unacceptable and we have to continue to stem his actions in the strongest possible way”.

On the fourth day of the biggest assault on a European state since World War Two, the Ukrainian president's office said negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow would be held at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. They would meet without preconditions, it said.

The meeting is set to take place near Chernobyl — the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster.

Thousands of Ukrainian civilians, mainly women and children, were fleeing from the Russian assault into neighbouring countries.

The capital Kyiv was still in Ukrainian government hands, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy rallying his people despite Russian shelling of civilian infrastructure.

But Putin, who has described the invasion as a “special military operation”, thrust an alarming new element into play on Sunday when he ordered Russia's deterrence forces — a reference to units which include nuclear arms — onto high alert.

He cited aggressive statements by Nato leaders and economic sanctions imposed by the West against Moscow.

“As you can see, not only do Western countries take unfriendly measures against our country in the economic dimension — I mean the illegal sanctions that everyone knows about very well — but also the top officials of leading Nato countries allow themselves to make aggressive statements with regards to our country,” Putin said on state television.

Russian soldiers and armoured vehicles rolled into Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, and witnesses reported firing and explosions. But city authorities said Ukrainian fighters had repelled the attack.

“Control over Kharkiv is completely ours! The armed forces, the police, and the defence forces are working, and the city is being completely cleansed of the enemy,” regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said.

Reuters was unable to immediately corroborate the information.

Ukrainian forces were also holding off Russian troops advancing on Kyiv.

“We have withstood and are successfully repelling enemy attacks. The fighting goes on,” Zelenskiy said in a video message from the streets of Kyiv.

In other developments, Russian troops blew up a natural gas pipeline in Kharkiv before daybreak, a Ukrainian state agency said, sending a burning cloud up into the darkness.

Ukraine also lodged a complaint against Russia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to get it to halt its invasion.

Russia must be held accountable for manipulating the notion of genocide to justify aggression," Zelensky declared in a tweet.

"We request an urgent decision ordering Russia to cease military activity now and expect trials to start next week."

The ICJ, which is based in the Netherlands capital The Hague, does not have a mandate to bring criminal charges against individual Russian leaders behind the four-day-old invasion.

But it is the world's top court for resolving legal complaints between states over alleged breaches of international law. It is the supreme judicial institution of the United Nations.

The US, European Union and the United Kingdom agreed to block “selected” Russian banks from the SWIFT global financial messaging system, which moves money around more than 11,000 banks and other financial institutions worldwide, part of a new round of sanctions aiming to impose a severe cost on Moscow for the invasion.

They also agreed to impose ”restrictive measures” on Russia’s central bank.

It was unclear how much territory Russian forces had seized or to what extent their advance had been stalled. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said, “the speed of the Russian advance has temporarily slowed likely as a result of acute logistical difficulties and strong Ukrainian resistance.”

A senior US defence official said more than half the Russian combat power that was massed along Ukraine’s borders had entered the country and Moscow has had to commit more fuel supply and other support units inside Ukraine than originally anticipated.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal US assessments.

The curfew forcing everyone in Kyiv inside was set to last through Monday morning. The relative quiet of the capital was sporadically broken by gunfire.

Fighting on the city’s outskirts suggested that small Russian units were trying to clear a path for the main forces. Small groups of Russian troops were reported inside Kyiv, but Britain and the US said the bulk of the forces were 30 kilometres from the city’s centre as of Saturday afternoon.

Russia claims its assault on Ukraine from the north, east and south is aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighbourhoods have been hit.

Ukraine’s health minister reported on Saturday that 198 people, including three children, had been killed and more than 1,000 others wounded during Europe’s largest land war since World War II. It was unclear whether those figures included both military and civilian casualties.

A missile struck a high-rise apartment building in Kyiv’s southwestern outskirts near one of the city’s two passenger airports, leaving a jagged hole of ravaged apartments over several floors. A rescue worker said six civilians were injured.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, said troops in Kyiv were fighting Russian “sabotage groups.” Ukraine says some 200 Russian soldiers have been captured and thousands killed.

Markarova said Ukraine was gathering evidence of shelling of residential areas, kindergartens and hospitals to submit to The Hague as possible crimes against humanity.

Zelenskyy reiterated his openness to talks with Russia in a video message, saying he welcomed an offer from Turkey and Azerbaijan to organize diplomatic efforts, which so far have faltered.

The Kremlin confirmed a phone call between Putin and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev but gave no hint of restarting talks.

A day earlier, Zelenskyy offered to negotiate a key Russian demand: abandoning ambitions of joining Nato.

Putin sent troops into Ukraine after denying for weeks that he intended to do so, all the while building up a force of almost 200,000 troops along the countries’ borders.

He claims the West has failed to take seriously Russia’s security concerns about Nato, the Western military alliance that Ukraine aspires to join. But he has also expressed scorn about Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state.

The effort was already coming at great cost to Ukraine, and apparently to Russian forces as well.

Ukrainian artillery fire destroyed a Russian train delivering diesel to troops heading toward Kyiv from the east, said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the interior minister.

The country’s Infrastructure Ministry said a Russian missile was shot down early on Saturday as it headed for the dam of the sprawling reservoir that serves Kyiv.

The government also said a Russian convoy was destroyed. Video images showed soldiers inspecting burned-out vehicles after Ukraine’s 101st brigade reported destroying a column of two light vehicles, two trucks and a tank. The claim could not be verified.

Highways into Kyiv from the east were dotted with checkpoints manned by Ukrainian troops and young men in civilian clothes carrying automatic rifles. Low-flying planes patrolled the skies, though it was unclear if they were Russian or Ukrainian.

In addition to Kyiv, the Russian assault appeared to focus on Ukraine’s economically vital coastal areas, from near the Black Sea port of Odesa in the west to beyond the Azov Sea port of Mariupol in the east.

Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol guarded bridges and blocked people from the shoreline amid concerns the Russian navy could launch an assault from the sea.

“I don’t care anymore who wins and who doesn’t,” said Ruzanna Zubenko, whose large family was forced from their home outside Mariupol after it was badly damaged by shelling.

“The only important thing is for our children to be able to grow up smiling and not crying.”

Fighting also raged in two eastern territories controlled by pro-Russia separatists. Authorities in Donetsk said hot water supplies to the city of about 900,000 were suspended because of damage to the system by Ukrainian shelling.

The US government urged Zelenskyy early on Saturday to evacuate Kyiv but he turned down the offer, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation. Zelenskyy issued a defiant video recorded on a downtown street, saying he remained in the city.

“We aren’t going to lay down weapons. We will protect the country,” he said. “Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that it’s our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of that.”

Hungary and Poland both opened their borders to Ukrainians.

Refugees arriving in the Hungarian border town of Zahony said men between the ages of 18 and 60 were not being allowed to leave Ukraine.

“My son was not allowed to come. My heart is so sore, I’m shaking,” said Vilma Sugar, 68.

At Poland’s Medyka crossing, some said they had walked for 15 miles (35km) to reach the border.

“They didn’t have food, no tea, they were standing in the middle of a field, on the road, kids were freezing,” Iryna Wiklenko said as she waited on the Polish side for her grandchildren and daughter-in-law to make it across.

Officials in Kyiv urged residents to stay away from windows to avoid debris or bullets.

Shelves were sparsely stocked at grocery stores and pharmacies, and people worried how long food and medicine supplies might last.

The US and its allies have beefed up forces on Nato's eastern flank but so far have ruled out deploying troops to fight Russia. Instead, the US, the European Union and other countries have slapped wide-ranging sanctions on Russia, freezing the assets of businesses and individuals including Putin and his foreign minister.

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, warned that Moscow could react by opting out of the last remaining nuclear arms pact, freezing Western assets and cutting diplomatic ties.

“There is no particular need in maintaining diplomatic relations,” Medvedev said. “We may look at each other in binoculars and gunsights.”

A total of 198 people have been killed and over 1,000 injured since the Russian offensive started before dawn on Thursday with massive air and missile strikes and troops forging into Ukraine from the north, east and south.

“Unfortunately, according to operative data, at the hands of the invaders we have 198 dead, including 3 children, 1,115 wounded, including 33 children,” Ukraine Health Minister Viktor Liashko wrote on Facebook. His statement did not make clear whether the total figure included both military and civilians.

The rise in the death toll came as Russian troops stormed towards Ukraine’s capital on Saturday, and street fighting broke out as city officials urged residents to take shelter. The country’s president refused an American offer to evacuate, insisting that he would stay. “The fight is here,” he said.

As dawn broke in Kyiv, it was not immediately clear how far the soldiers had advanced. Ukrainian officials reported some success in fending off assaults, but fighting persisted near the capital. Skirmishes reported on the edge of the city suggested that small Russian units were probing Ukrainian defences to clear a path for the main forces.

The street clashes followed fighting that pummelled bridges, schools and apartment buildings, and resulted in hundreds of casualties. By Saturday morning, when the small Russian units tried to infiltrate Kyiv, Ukrainian forces controlled the situation, said Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Ukrainian presidential office.

Kyiv's mayor extended a 10 pm to 7am curfew he imposed two days ago to run from 5pm until 8am as of Saturday.

All civilians on the street during the curfew would be considered members of the enemy's sabotage and reconnaissance groups, Mayor Vitali Klitchsko said.

The swift movement of the Russian troops after less than three days of fighting further imperilled a country clinging to independence in the face of an invasion, which threatened to topple the democratic government.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy offered renewed assurance on Saturday that the country’s military would stand up to the Russian invasion. In a video recorded on a downtown street, he said he had not left the city and that claims that the Ukrainian military would put down arms were false.

“We aren’t going to lay down weapons. We will protect the country,” he said. “Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that it’s our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of that.”

Zelenskyy said in a second video later on Saturday that Moscow's plan to quickly seize the capital and install a puppet government had been unsuccessful. In an emotional speech, he accused the Russian forces of hitting civilian areas and infrastructure.

US officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to overthrow Ukraine’s government and replace it with a regime of his own. The invasion represented Putin’s boldest effort yet to redraw the map of Europe and revive Moscow’s Cold War-era influence. It triggered new international efforts to end the invasion, including direct sanctions on Putin.

Zelenskyy was urged to evacuate Kyiv at the behest of the US government but turned down the offer, according to a senior American intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation. The official quoted the president as saying that “the fight is here” and that he needed anti-tank ammunition but “not a ride”.

City officials in Kyiv urged residents to take shelter, to stay away from windows and to take precautions to avoid flying debris or bullets.

The Kremlin accepted Kyiv’s offer to hold talks, but the Russian military continued its advance, laying claim on Friday to the southern Ukraine city of Melitopol. Still, it was unclear in the fog of war how much of Ukraine is still under Ukrainian control and how much or little Russian forces have seized.

As fighting persisted, Ukraine’s military reported shooting down an II-76 Russian transport plane carrying paratroopers near Vasylkiv, a city 40 kilometres south of Kyiv, an account confirmed by a senior American intelligence official. It was unclear how many were on board. Transport planes can carry up to 125 paratroopers.

A second Russian military transport plane was shot down near Bila Tserkva, 85km south of Kyiv, according to two American officials with direct knowledge of conditions on the ground in Ukraine.

The Russian military has not commented on either plane.

The US and other global powers slapped ever-tougher sanctions on Russia as the invasion reverberated through the world’s economy and energy supplies, threatening to further hit ordinary households. Sports leagues moved to punish Russia and even the popular Eurovision song contest banned it from the May finals in Italy.

Through it all, Russia remained unbowed, vetoing a UN Security Council resolution demanding that it stop attacking Ukraine and withdraw troops immediately. The veto was expected, but the US and its supporters argued that the effort would highlight Moscow’s international isolation. The 11-1 vote, with China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstaining, showed significant but not total opposition to Russia’s invasion of its smaller, militarily weaker neighbour.

Nato, meanwhile, decided to send parts of the alliance’s response force to help protect its member nations in the east for the first time. Nato did not say how many troops would be deployed but added that it would involve land, sea and air power.

Day Two of Russia’s invasion, the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, focused on the Ukrainian capital, where Associated Press reporters heard explosions starting before dawn. Gunfire was reported in several areas.

A large boom was heard in the evening near Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the square in central Kyiv that was the heart of protests which led to the 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president. The cause was not immediately known.

Five explosions struck near a major power plant on Kyiv’s eastern outskirts, said Klitschko. There was no information on what caused them, and no electrical outages were immediately reported.

UN officials reported 25 civilian deaths, mostly from shelling and airstrikes, and said that 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes. They estimate that up to four million could flee if the fighting escalates.

Zelenskyy tweeted that he and US President Joe Biden spoke by phone and discussed “strengthening sanctions, concrete defence assistance and an antiwar coalition”.

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