KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops headed for Ukraine’s capital on Saturday after a night of explosions and street fighting that sent Kyiv residents seeking refuge underground. The country’s leader turned down a US offer to evacuate, insisting he would stay. “The fight is here,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
It was not immediately clear how far the Russian troops had advanced. Ukrainian officials reported success in repelling the assaults, but fighting persisted near the capital. Reported skirmishes on the outskirts of the town suggested that small Russian units were trying to clear a path for the main forces.
Russia says its assault on Ukraine is aimed only at military targets, but civilians have been killed and injured in Europe’s biggest ground war since World War II.
A missile hit a high-rise building on the city’s southwestern outskirts, near one of Kyiv’s two passenger airports, Mayor Vitali Klitchsko said, leaving a jagged hole of ravaged multi-storey apartments . A rescue worker said six civilians were injured.
The mayor extended a curfew from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. which he imposed two days to run from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. starting Saturday.
“All civilians on the street during the curfew will be considered members of the enemy’s sabotage and reconnaissance groups,” Klitschko said.
The conflict has already driven hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from their homes. UN officials said more than 120,000 Ukrainians had left the country for Poland, Moldova and other neighboring countries.
Saturday’s street clashes followed two days of massive air and missile strikes as Russian soldiers arrived from the north, east and south. The assault destroyed bridges, schools and residential neighborhoods and claimed hundreds of lives.
In the fog of war, it was unclear how much of Ukraine was still under Ukrainian control and how much Russian forces had seized. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that the Russian military had taken full control of the southern town of Melitopol, about 35 kilometers inland from the coast of the Sea of Azov, and said that the Russian-backed separatists had made significant gains in the eastern Donbass region.
Ukrainian and Western officials, however, say Ukrainian forces managed to slow the Russian advance. Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry said a Russian missile was shot down before dawn on Saturday as it headed towards the dam of the vast water reservoir that serves Kyiv.
Western officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to overthrow the Ukrainian government and replace it with his own regime. The invasion represented Putin’s boldest effort yet to redraw the map of Europe and revive Moscow’s Cold War-era influence. This sparked new international efforts to end the invasion, including direct sanctions against Putin.
Zelenskyy on Saturday renewed assurances that the country’s military would resist the Russian invasion. In a provocative video recorded on a street in downtown Kyiv, he said he had stayed in the city and claims that the Ukrainian military would lay down their arms were false.
“We are not going to lay down our arms. We will protect the country,” the Ukrainian president said. “Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of this.
Zelenskyy said in a second video later Saturday that Moscow’s plan to quickly seize the capital and install a puppet government had failed. In an emotional speech, he accused Russian forces of hitting civilian areas and infrastructure.
The president’s whereabouts have been kept under wraps after he told European leaders in a call on Thursday that he was Russia’s No. 1 target – and that they might not see him alive again .
The US government urged Zelenskyy early Saturday to evacuate Kiev, but he refused the offer, according to a senior US intelligence official with direct knowledge of the conversation. The official quoted the president as saying “the fight is there” and that he needed anti-tank munitions but “not a round”.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Ukraine’s health minister reported on Saturday that 198 people, including three children, have been killed and more than 1,000 injured since Russia’s predawn offensive began on Thursday. It was unclear whether the figure included both military and civilian casualties.
Ukrainian officials say hundreds of Russians were killed in the first days of the fighting. Russian authorities have not released any casualty figures.
The UN estimates that up to 4 million people could flee if the fighting intensifies. Refugees arriving in the Hungarian border town of Zahony said men of fighting age were not allowed to leave Ukraine.
“My son was not allowed to come. I’m so sick to my stomach, I’m shaking, I can’t calm down, they didn’t let it come,” said Vilma Sugar, 68.
Kyiv city officials have urged residents to take shelter, stay away from windows and take precautions to avoid flying debris or bullets. Many spent the night in basements, underground parking lots and subway stations.
“We are all scared and worried. We don’t know what to do then, what will happen in a few days,” said Lucy Vashaka, 20, a worker at a small hotel in Kiev.
A British official, Armed Forces Minister James Heappey, said fighting in the capital had so far been confined to “very isolated pockets of Russian special forces and paratroopers” and that “the main armored columns approaching of Kyiv are still far”.
The United States and other world powers decided to freeze the assets of Putin and his foreign minister on Friday as part of tougher sanctions against Russia as the invasion reverberated through the global economy and the energy supply.
Sports leagues have also sought to punish Russia, and the popular Eurovision Song Contest banned Russian acts from the event’s May final in Italy.
Russia has remained adamant, vetoing a UN Security Council resolution calling on it to stop attacking Ukraine and withdraw its troops immediately. The 11-1 vote, with China, India and the United Arab Emirates abstaining, showed significant opposition to Russia’s invasion of its smaller and militarily weak neighbor.
A senior Russian official ignored sweeping sanctions the United States, European Union and other allies imposed on Russia on Saturday as a reflection of Western “political impotence.”
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, has warned that Moscow could respond to sanctions by withdrawing from the latest nuclear arms pact, freezing Western assets and cutting diplomatic ties with Western nations.
“There is no particular need to maintain diplomatic relations,” Medvedev said. “We can look at each other through binoculars and sights.”
NATO, meanwhile, decided on Friday to send elements of the alliance’s response force to help protect member countries 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.
On Friday evening, US President Joe Biden signed a note authorizing up to $350 million in additional security assistance to Ukraine, bringing the total security assistance approved for Ukraine to $1 billion. dollars over the past year. How quickly aid would be delivered was unclear.
The assault has been anticipated for weeks by US and Western allies and denied being in progress for so long by Putin. He argued that the West left him no other choice by refusing to negotiate Russia’s security demands.
Putin did not reveal his ultimate plans for Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave a hint, saying: “We want to allow the Ukrainian people to determine their own destiny.” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia recognizes Zelensky as president, but would not say how long the Russian military operation might last.
Zelenskyy on Friday offered to negotiate on a key Putin demand: that Ukraine declare itself neutral and give up its ambition to join NATO. The Kremlin said it accepted Kiev’s offer to hold talks, but it appeared to be an effort to extract concessions from embattled Zelenskyy instead of a move toward a diplomatic solution.
(Copyright (c) 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)