Russian air strikes and artillery fire smashed into buildings in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Tuesday as invading forces tightened their grip, while a convoy of civilians headed out of the besieged port city of Mariupol for safer parts.
At least five people were killed in the bombardments on Kyiv on the 20th day of the Russian assault, authorities said. Buildings were set ablaze and people were buried under the rubble.
Despite the danger, the leaders of Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic arrived in the city in a show of solidarity with its people.
Evacuations of civilians from cities under assault from Russian forces gathered pace. About 2,000 cars managed to leave the port city of Mariupol and a similar number were waiting to follow, the local council said.
But a convoy with supplies for Mariupol, whose residents have been sheltering from repeated Russian bombardments and are desperate for food and water, was stuck at nearby Berdyansk, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
Talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations via a video link resumed on Tuesday. Ukrainian officials played up hopes the war could end sooner than expected, saying Moscow may be coming to terms with its failure to impose a new government on Kyiv by force.
In a hint of compromise, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Kyiv was prepared to accept security guarantees that stop short of its long-term objective of membership of the NATO alliance, which Moscow opposes.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg announced its members’ leaders would meet in Brussels on March 24 to discuss the invasion and show support for Ukraine.
“At this critical time, North America & Europe must continue to stand together,” Stoltenberg said.
U.S. President Joe Biden will attend, the White House said.
“STOP THE TRAGEDY”
Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, Petr Fiala of the Czech Republic and Janez Jansa of Slovenia traveled by train to Kyiv, the first foreign leaders to make such a visit since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion on Feb. 24.
“We must stop the tragedy that is happening in the East as soon as possible,” Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook.
Their visit was a symbol of Ukraine’s success so far in fending off an assault that Western countries believe was aimed at seizing the city weeks ago.
About half of Kyiv’s 3.4 million population has fled and residents are spending nights sheltering in metro stations.
Two powerful explosions rocked Kyiv before dawn on Tuesday and tracer fire lit up the night sky. An apartment block was in flames after being struck by artillery.
Sitting on the ground outside, Igor Krupa said he survived because he had slept under a makeshift shelter of furniture and metal weights.
“All the windows went out and all the debris went into the apartment,” he said.
But despite reducing parts of cities to rubble, Russian forces have failed to capture any of Ukraine’s 10 biggest cities.
Still, hundreds of civilians have been killed and nearly 3 million people, mostly women and children, have fled Ukraine for safety in neighboring countries. Zelenskiy said on Tuesday that 97 children had died so far in the invasion.
On the Romanian border, a woman named Tanya said she had fled the southern frontline town of Mykolaiv to save her child. “Because the people that are there now are Russians, Russian soldiers, and they kill children.”
Zelenskiy, who has won admiration in the West for his leadership under fire, called on Russian troops to surrender.
“You will not take anything from Ukraine. You will take lives,” he said in a video message. “But why should you die? What for? I know that you want to survive.”
He also indicated Kyiv might be ready to compromise on its aspirations for NATO membership, an aim that has riled Moscow.
“If we cannot enter through open doors, then we must cooperate with the associations with which we can, which will help us, protect us…and have separate guarantees.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it was too early to predict progress in the talks: “The work is difficult, and in the current situation the very fact that (the talks) are continuing is probably positive.”
One of Zelenskiy’s top aides said the war would be over by May or even within weeks as Russia had run out of fresh troops.
“We are at a fork in the road now,” Oleksiy Arestovich said in a video. He said he expected either a peace deal within one or two weeks or another Russian attempt with new reinforcements, which could prolong the conflict for another month.
At the United Nations, Russian envoy Vassily Nebenzia said Moscow would end what it calls its “special military operation” when its goals were achieved.
WAR GRINDS ON
In Rivne in western Ukraine, officials said 19 people had been killed in a Russian air strike on a TV tower. If confirmed it would be the worst attack on a civilian target so far in the northwest where Russian ground troops have yet to tread.
Russia denies targeting civilians.
More than 100 buses carrying a few thousand civilians left the besieged northeastern city of Sumy in a “safe passage” operation, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday. They were heading towards Lubny in central Ukraine after Russians gave a green light for the evacuation.
Russia said it now controlled the Kherson region in southern Ukraine. Reuters could not independently verify the report.
The conflict has brought economic isolation upon Russia. The United States, the European Union and Britain announced further sanctions on Tuesday, while Moscow retaliated by putting Biden and other U.S. officials on a “stop list” that bars them from entering Russia.
The latest EU sanctions included bans on energy sector investments, luxury goods exports to Moscow, and imports of steel products from Russia.
They also freeze the assets of more business leaders believed to support the Russian state, including Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich.