Russian troops push toward Ukraine’s capital as residents take cover

Vladimir Putin, Russia conflict with Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian troops closed in on Ukraine’s capital on Saturday after a night of explosions and street fighting sent Kyiv residents seeking shelter or fleeing the city.

The country’s leader claimed Ukraine’s forces had repulsed the assault and vowed to keep up the struggle.

“The real fighting for Kyiv is ongoing,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message, accusing Russia in a video message of hitting infrastructure and civilian targets.

“We will win,” he said.

Central Kyiv appeared quiet on Saturday, and skirmishes reported on the edge of the city suggested that small Russian units were trying to clear a path for the main forces.

Britain’s defence ministry said Saturday that the bulk of Russian forces were 19 miles from the middle of the city, with a US defence official later making the same assessment.

As Russian troops pressed their offensive with small groups of troops reported inside Kyiv, the city’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, extended an overnight curfew to run from 5pm on Saturday until 8am on Monday.

He said “all civilians on the street during the curfew will be considered members of the enemy’s sabotage and reconnaissance groups”.

Russia claims its assault on Ukraine was aimed only at military targets, but bridges, schools and residential neighbourhoods have been hit since the invasion began on Thursday with air and missile strikes and Russian troops entering Ukraine from the north, east and south.

Ukraine’s health minister reported on Saturday that 198 people, including three children, have been killed and more than 1,000 others have been wounded during Europe’s largest ground offensive since the Second World World War. It was unclear whether the figure included both military and civilian casualties.

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

The conflict has driven thousands of Ukrainians from their homes in search of safety.

UN officials said more than 120,000 Ukrainians have left the country for Poland, Moldova and other neighbouring nations.

Later on Saturday, Mr Zelensky reiterated his openness to talks with Russia in a video message, saying he welcomed an offer from the leaders of Turkey and Azerbaijan to organise diplomatic efforts.

A day earlier, Mr Zelensky offered to negotiate a key Russian demand: to abandon its ambitions of joining Nato.

It was unclear in the fog of war how much of Ukraine was still under Ukrainian control and how much Russian forces have seized.

Western governments claimed stiff Ukrainian resistance had slowed the Russian advance, and Russia does not yet control Ukraine’s skies.

Ukraine’s Infrastructure Ministry said a Russian missile was shot down before dawn on Saturday as it headed for the dam of the sprawling water reservoir that serves Kyiv, and Ukraine said a Russian military convoy was destroyed near the city early on Saturday.

In addition to Kyiv, the Russian assault appeared to focus on Ukraine’s coastline, stretching from the Black Sea port of Odesa, in the west near the border with Romania, to the Azov Sea port of Mariupol in the east.

If the Russian troops succeed, Ukraine will be cut off from access to all of its sea ports, which are vital for its economy. In Mariupol, Ukrainian soldiers guarded bridges and blocked people from the seashore area amid concerns the Russian navy could launch an assault from the sea.

The Russian military said on Friday that they claimed control of Melitopol, about 22 miles inland from the Sea of Azov.

Western 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 Mr Putin’s boldest effort yet to redraw the map of Europe and revive Moscow’s Cold War-era influence.

Mr Zelensky issued a defiant video recorded on a downtown Kyiv street early on Saturday, saying he remained in the city and that claims the Ukrainian military would put down arms were false.

“We aren’t going to lay down weapons. We will protect the country,” the Ukrainian president 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.”

The US government urged Mr Zelensky 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.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been on the move, seeking safety in the west of the country or beyond.

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

“We’re all scared and worried. We don’t know what to do then, what’s going to happen in a few days,” said Lucy Vashaka, 20, a worker at a small Kyiv hotel.

The US military announced 350 million dollars in assistance to Ukraine on Saturday, including anti-tank weapons, body armour and small arms. Germany likewise said it would send missiles and anti-tank weapons to the country.

Nato member nations also have beefed up their troops in allied countries in eastern Europe, but 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 Russian businesses and individuals including Mr Putin and his foreign minister.

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