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Russian troops zero in on Kyiv as 150,000 Ukrainians flee

3 months 4 weeks 1 day ago Saturday, February 26 2022 Feb 26, 2022 February 26, 2022 4:08 PM February 26, 2022 in News - AP National
Source: APnews.com
By: YURAS KARMANAU, JIM HEINTZ, VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV and JAMES LaPORTA Associated Press
Ukrainian soldiers take positions outside a military facility as two cars burn, in a street in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022. Russian troops stormed toward Ukraine's capital Saturday, and street fighting broke out as city officials urged residents to take shelter. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops closed in on Kyiv and skirmishes flared on its outskirts Saturday as Ukraine's leader vowed to continue battling an invasion by a much better-armed adversary. Terrified men, women and children sought safety inside and underground amid a 39-hour curfew the government imposed to keep people off the streets.

The United Nations said more than 150,000 Ukrainians had fled for Poland, Moldova and other neighboring countries and warned the number could grow to 4 million if fighting escalates.

"We will fight for as long as needed to liberate our country," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised.

To aid Ukraine's ability to hold out, the U.S. pledged an additional $350 million in military assistance to Ukraine on Saturday, including anti-tank weapons, body armor and small arms. And Germany also said it would send missiles and anti-tank weapons to the besieged country.

Even as Zelenskyy called on his countrymen to join the fight, it was impossible to know how effective Ukraine has been in slowing the Russian advance. A curfew in Kyiv set to last through Monday morning forced everyone inside, though 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 U.S. said the bulk of Russian forces were 19 miles (30 kilometers) from the city's center as of Saturday afternoon.

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

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

In Kyiv, a missile struck a high-rise apartment building in the 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 U.S., Oksana Markarova, said troops in Kyiv were fighting Russian "sabotage groups." Ukraine says some 200 Russian soldiers have been captured and 3,500 have been killed.

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

The Kremlin gave a terse confirmation of a phone call between Russian President Vladimir 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 he spent weeks denying that's what he intended, 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.

Putin hasn't disclosed his ultimate plans for Ukraine, but Western officials believe he is determined to overthrow Ukraine's government and replace it with a regime of his own, redrawing the map of Europe and reviving Moscow's Cold War-era influence.

It was unclear how much territory Russian forces have seized. 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 U.S. defense official said Saturday that more than half of the Russian combat power that was massed along Ukraine's borders had entered Ukraine, and that Russia has had to commit more fuel supply and other support units inside Ukraine than originally anticipated. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. assessments, did not provide further details.

Ukraine's Infrastructure Ministry said a Russian missile was shot down before dawn 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 Saturday. Footage 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 uniformed 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 coastline, which stretches from near the Black Sea port of Odesa in the west to beyond the Azov Sea port of Mariupol in the east.

"I don't care anymore who wins and who doesn't," Ruzanna Zubenko said as her large family was forced from their home outside Mariupol after it was badly damaged by shelling on Friday. "The only important thing is for our children to be able to grow up smiling and not crying."

If the Russian troops succeed, Ukraine would 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 shoreline amid concerns the Russian navy could launch an assault from the sea. 

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

The U.S. government urged Zelenskyy early 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 Kyiv street early Saturday, saying he remained in the city.

"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 conflict has driven thousands of Ukrainians from their homes in search of safety. U.N. officials said more than 150,000 Ukrainians had left the country for Poland, Moldova and other neighboring nations and estimated 4 million could flee if the fighting escalates. 

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.

Hungary and Poland both opened their borders to Ukrainians. At Poland's Medyka crossing, some said they had walked for 15 miles (35 kilometers) 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," said Iryna Wiklenko as she waited on the Polish side for her grandchildren and her daughter-in-law to make it across.

Officials in Kyiv urged residents to seek shelter, to stay away from windows and to take precautions to avoid flying debris or bullets. Many spent Friday night in basements, underground parking garages and subway stations, and prepared to do the same on Saturday.

Shelves wore thin at some Kyiv grocery stores and pharmacies, and some worried how long stockpiles of food and medicine might last.

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

Zelenskyy appealed for tougher sanctions.

Among the tough possibilities that remain to stanch the Kremlin's access to hundreds of billions in cash: Sanctioning the Russian Central Bank and cutting Russia from the SWIFT international payment system.

A senior Russian official on Saturday shrugged off sanctions as a reflection of Western "political impotence."

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

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

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow. LaPorta reported from Boca Raton, Florida. Francesca Ebel, Josef Federman and Andrew Drake in Kyiv; Mstyslav Chernov and Nic Dumitrache in Mariupol, Ukraine; Jill Lawless in London; Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin; Raf Casert and Lorne Cook in Brussels; Vanessa Gera in Warsaw; Matt Sedensky in New York; Jennifer Peltz at the United Nations; and Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, Aamer Madhani, Eric Tucker, Nomaan Merchant, Ellen Knickmeyer, Zeke Miller, Chris Megerian and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow the AP's coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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