Ukraine vows to keep fighting as Russia forces close on Kyiv
KYIV (Reuters) -A defiant President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces were repelling Russian troops advancing on Kyiv on Saturday, as Western nations announced they were shipping more weapons to help the country’s outgunned military.
Reuters witnesses in Kyiv reported occasional blasts and gunfire in the city on Saturday evening, but it was not clear exactly where it was coming from. The capital and other cities have been pounded by Russian artillery and cruise missiles.
A U.S. defence official said Ukraine’s forces were putting up “very determined resistance” to the three-pronged Russian advance that has sent hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing westwards, clogging major highways and railway lines.
“We have withstood and are successfully repelling enemy attacks. The fighting goes on,” Zelenskiy said in a video message from the streets of Kyiv posted on his social media.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched what he called a special military operation before dawn on Thursday, ignoring Western warnings and saying the “neo-Nazis” ruling Ukraine threatened Russia’s security.
The Kremlin said its troops were advancing again “in all directions” after Putin ordered a pause on Friday.
Russia’s assault is the biggest on a European state since World War Two and threatens to upend the continent’s post-Cold War order.
The crisis has galvanised the NATO Western military alliance, which has announced a series of moves to reinforce its eastern flank. While NATO has said it will not deploy troops to Ukraine, a string of countries are sending military aid.
U.S. President Joe Biden approved the release of up to $350 million worth of weapons from U.S. stocks, while Germany, in a shift from its long-standing policy of not exporting weapons to war zones, said it would send anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc’s foreign ministers would meet on Sunday evening to discuss emergency assistance for Ukraine’s armed forces.
Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov said his government will create an “IT army” to fight against Russia’s digital intrusions. Kyiv already has quietly called its hacker underground to help protect critical infrastructure and conduct cyber spying missions against Russian troops, Reuters exclusively reported.
CAPITAL UNDER CURFEW
Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, won independence from Moscow in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union and wants to join NATO and the EU, goals Russia opposes.
Putin has said he must eliminate what he calls a serious threat to his country from its smaller neighbour, accusing it of genocide against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine – a charge dismissed by Kyiv and its Western allies as baseless propaganda.
A Ukrainian presidential adviser said about 3,500 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded and that Russian troops had not made serious gains on the third day of fighting. Western officials have also said intelligence showed Russia suffering higher casualties than expected and its advance slowing.
Russia has not released casualty figures and it was impossible to verify tolls or the precise picture on the ground.
“We know that (Russian forces) have not made the progress that they wanted to make, particularly in the north. They have been frustrated by what they have seen is a very determined resistance,” the U.S. official said, without providing evidence.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin ally, said on Saturday his fighters were also deployed in Ukraine. He said Russian forces could easily take Kyiv and other large cities but their task was to avoid loss of life.
Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko said there was no major Russian military presence in the capital, but that saboteur groups were active and he was imposing a curfew from Saturday evening until Monday morning.
Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, later told Germany’s Bild tabloid the city was “nearly encircled”.
Authorities have handed thousands of assault rifles to residents and told citizens to make petrol bombs to help repel the invaders.
Ukrainians faced lengthy queues at cash machines and petrol stations, where individual sales are mostly limited to 20 litres. Many shops in the city centre were closed and the streets were largely empty on Saturday afternoon.
“I was smart enough to stock up food for at least a month,” said Serhiy, out for a walk before the curfew. “I did not trust the politicians that this would end peacefully.”
At least 198 Ukrainians, including three children, have been killed and 1,115 people wounded so far in Russia’s invasion, Interfax quoted Ukraine’s Health Ministry as saying. It was unclear whether the numbers comprised only civilian casualties.
Interfax later cited the regional administration in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, saying 17 civilians had been killed and 73 wounded by Russian shelling.
Moscow says it is taking care not to hit civilian sites.
REFUGEES, SANCTIONS AND PROTESTS
Russia’s Defence Ministry said its forces had captured Melitopol, a city of 150,000 in southeastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials did not comment and Britain cast doubt on the report.
If confirmed, it would be the first significant population centre the Russians have seized.
The city of Mariupol, a key port on the Sea of Azov in southeast Ukraine, remained under relentless shelling on Saturday, its mayor Vadim Boychenko said in a televised address.
“They are shelling schools, apartment blocks,” he said.
About 100,000 people have crossed into Poland from Ukraine since Thursday, including 9,000 who have entered since 7 a.m. on Saturday, Polish Deputy Interior Minister Pawel Szefernaker said.
“The most important thing is that people survive,” said Katharina Asselborn, wiping away tears while waiting at the Polish border for her sister, aunt and her three children to arrive from their home in Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa.
“The last 30 kilometres to the border they went on foot.”
Ukrainians were also crossing the borders into Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.
Western nations have also announced new sanctions on Russia, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology exports.
They have so far stopped short of forcing Russia out of the SWIFT system for international bank payments, though Germany’s foreign and economy ministers and French presidential official indicated on Saturday that such a move may come soon. .
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also said the world should cut Russia off from SWIFT.
Several European countries, including Russia’s Baltic neighbours Lithuania and Latvia, said they were closing their airspace to Russian airliners. Germany said it was preparing to possibly follow suit.
Protests against the war took place in Berlin, Bern, London, Tokyo, Sydney and other cities worldwide.
Abramov Kiril, a 33-year-old Ukrainian living in Romania who still has grandparents in southern Ukraine, was among around 1,000 people demonstrating against Putin’s move outside the Russian embassy in Bucharest.
“If they will not stop him in Ukraine he will go forward,” he said. “Somehow, together with everybody, with all the countries in Europe and … all the world, we need to stop him.”
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