Russian strikes hit new civilian targets in central and eastern Ukraine on Friday, including a town previously seen as a safe haven, as troops from Moscow closed in on the capital Kiev.
More than two weeks after Russia invaded its neighbor on February 24, hundreds of thousands of civilians remain trapped and under shelling, while the UN estimates that around 2.5 million have fled.
Western powers imposed unprecedented sanctions on Moscow and sent funds and military aid to Kiev, but failed to stop Russia, with night strikes again reported across Ukraine on Friday.
Early high-level talks between the two sides on Thursday failed to make a breakthrough, although Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday there were “some positive changes”.
He added that negotiations are taking place “now almost daily”.
On Friday morning, three missiles hit civilian buildings in the central city of Dnipro, destroying a shoe factory and killing a security guard.
The city had been seen as a haven of peace, becoming a hub for the coordination of humanitarian aid and those fleeing the fiercer fighting in the east of the country.
“Today we were supposed to welcome people who need a lot of support,” said Svetlana Kalenecheko, who lives and works in a clinic that was damaged in the attack.
“Now we can’t help anyone.”
Elsewhere, a retirement home for people with disabilities was hit in the village of Oskil, near Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, in Russian strikes that also destroyed five homes, local officials said.
No casualties were reported. At the care home, all 30 staff and 330 mostly elderly patients – 10 of whom need wheelchairs – had taken refuge at the time.
Military targets were also hit early Friday, with four Ukrainian servicemen killed in strikes on Lutsk military airport in the northwest, local officials said. Moscow said the airfield had been “decommissioned”.
Meanwhile, the advance of Russian forces continues against the capital Kiev, which risks being completely surrounded.
Ukraine’s military has warned that Russia is trying to “block” Kiev by eliminating defenses to the west and north of the capital, adding that there is also a risk for Brovary to the east.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Thursday that half of the city’s population had fled and the capital “turned into a fortress”.
Northwestern suburbs, including Irpin and Bucha, have already suffered days of heavy shelling, but Russian armored vehicles are also advancing northeast.
Ukrainian soldiers described fierce fighting for control of the main highway leading to the capital, and AFP journalists saw missile strikes on Thursday in Velyka Dymerka, just outside the city limits of Kiev.
The British Ministry of Defense said Russian forces were committing an increased number of forces to encircle key towns, reducing the numbers available to continue the advance.
The Kremlin said Friday that fighters from Syria and the Middle East would be allowed to fight for Russia in what Moscow calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The Russian military admitted this week that conscripts were taking part, after Putin previously said only “professional” soldiers were involved.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has accused Russia of hiring “murderers from Syria, a country where everything has been destroyed…like they are doing to us here”.
In a video message recorded outside his presidential office in Kyiv, Zelensky also called on the European Union to “do more” to help his country.
EU leaders meeting in France on Friday were expected to back a proposal to double funding for military aid to Ukraine by an additional 500 million euros ($550 million).
On Thursday night, the US Congress passed a budget including $14 billion in humanitarian and military aid for Ukraine.
But the United States has ruled out the application of a no-fly zone and rejected a Polish plan to transfer fighter jets to Ukraine via an American air base, for fear of being directly drawn into the conflict. .
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told AFP on Friday that the military alliance had “a responsibility to prevent this conflict from escalating beyond Ukraine’s borders into a full-fledged war. between Russia and NATO.
Despair in Mariupol
The southern port city of Mariupol has come under relentless shelling, and Zelensky said on Thursday that attempts to deliver aid had been hit.
He said Moscow launched a “tank attack” targeting a humanitarian corridor where it had dispatched a convoy to try to deliver food, water and medicine to the city.
The attack, which Zelenskiy described in a video statement as “outright terror”, came a day after the bombing of a children’s hospital there which local officials said killed three people, including a young girl.
Zelenskiy called the attack a “war crime”, a position supported by senior Western officials, while the Russian military claimed the bombing was a “staged provocation” by Ukraine.
In a video, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said Russian warplanes targeted residential areas of the city “every 30 minutes” on Thursday, “killing civilians, elderly people, women and children”.
The situation in the city has been described as “apocalyptic”, with more than 1,200 civilians killed in days of constant attacks, according to the mayor.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said some residents had started fighting for food and many had run out of clean water.
Yulia, a 29-year-old teacher who fled Mariupol, said her mother-in-law was still there and told them “the attacks don’t stop”.
“There are a lot of corpses in the street and no one is burying them,” she told AFP.
Violent speech on Facebook
Some humanitarian corridors outside the attacked towns held.
About 100,000 people were able to leave the city of Sumy in the northeast, the city of Izyum in the east and areas northwest of Kyiv in the past two days, Ukrainian officials said.
Moscow said it would also open daily humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians to Russian territory, but Kiev rejected routes into Russia.
Later Friday, the UN Security Council will hold an emergency meeting at Russia’s request, following its claims that the United States is funding research into the development of biological weapons in Ukraine.
Both Washington and Kiev have denied the allegations, with the United States saying they were a sign that Moscow may soon use the weapons itself.
Russia meanwhile said it was opening criminal proceedings against Meta, the US parent company of Facebook and Instagram, for “calling the murder” of Russians after the company relaxed its policy on violent speech.
The UN also expressed concern over the decision – which would allow statements such as “death to Russian invaders” but not credible threats against civilians – saying it could trigger hate speech against Russians.