Peace talks continue as Ukraine denies hitting fuel depot on Russian soil

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Talks to end the fighting in Ukraine resumed Friday, as another desperate attempt to save civilians in the shattered and besieged city of Mariupol failed and Russia accused the Ukrainians of launching a helicopter attack on a fuel depot on Russian soil.

Governor of Russia’s Belgorod region Vyacheslav Gladkov said a fiery cross-border raid by two helicopter gunships left two people injured, although state oil company Rosneft denied anyone was hurt.

“Certainly, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said five weeks after Moscow began sending more than 150 000 of its own soldiers across the Ukrainian border.

The Russian claim could not immediately be verified and Ukraine denied responsibility.

“For some reason they say we did it, but in fact it doesn’t correspond to reality,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, told Ukrainian television.

Russia has previously reported cross-border bombings from Ukraine, including an incident last week that killed a military chaplain, but not an incursion of its airspace. The Rosneft depot is approximately 35 kilometers (21 miles) from the Ukrainian border.

LOOK: Russia focuses on southern Ukraine amid heavy resistance

Meanwhile, Russia has continued to withdraw some of its troops from areas around kyiv, three days after Moscow announced it would reduce military activity near the Ukrainian capital and northern city of Chernihiv to promote trust at the negotiating table.

As Russian forces continued their bombardment of these two areas, Ukrainian troops exploited the retreat on the ground by mounting counterattacks and retaking a number of towns and villages.

Yet Ukraine and its allies have warned that the Kremlin is not defusing but resupplying its troops and moving them east of the country for an intensified assault on the predominantly Russian-speaking region of Donbass, which includes Mariupol.

The latest talks, which took place via video, followed a meeting in Turkey on Tuesday, where Ukraine reiterated its willingness to drop its NATO bid and declare itself neutral – Moscow’s main demand. In exchange, Ukraine offered that its security be guaranteed by several other countries.

The head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Medinsky, said on social media that Moscow’s positions on maintaining control of the Crimean peninsula – seized from Ukraine in 2014 – and expanding territory in the east of Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists “remain unchanged”.

The invasion killed thousands and drove more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine.

On the outskirts of kyiv, where Russian troops have retreated, wrecked cars lined the streets of Irpin, a suburb popular with young families, now in ruins. Rescuers carried elderly people on stretchers across a destroyed bridge to safety.

Three wooden crosses next to a bomb-damaged residential building marked the graves of a mother and son and an unknown person. A resident who gave her name only as Lila said she helped bury them hastily on March 5, just before Russian troops arrived.

“They were hit by artillery and they were burned to death,” she said.

An Irpin resident who gave his name only as Andriy said the Russians packed up their gear and left on Tuesday. The next day they shelled the town for almost an hour before Ukrainian soldiers recaptured it.

“I don’t think it’s over,” Andriy said. “They will come back.”

In the south, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was unable to conduct an operation to bus civilians out of Mariupol. He said a team was on their way but had to turn back.

City authorities said the Russians were blocking access to Mariupol.

“We do not see a real desire on the part of the Russians and their satellites to give Mariupol residents the opportunity to evacuate to Ukrainian-controlled territory,” Petro Andryushchenko, adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, wrote on Telegram messaging app. .

He said Russian forces “categorically do not allow any humanitarian cargo, even small quantities, into the city.”

The strategic port city on the Sea of ​​Azov has seen some of the worst suffering of the war, with weeks of heavy fighting and shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine. About 100,000 people are believed to have remained in the city, compared to 430,000 before the war.

“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors suffered by the people of Mariupol,” said Red Cross spokesman Ewan Watson.

On Thursday, Russian forces blocked a convoy of 45 buses trying to evacuate people from Mariupol, and only about 600 people were able to leave in private cars, the Ukrainian government said. Russian forces also seized 14 tonnes of food and medical supplies bound for Mariupol, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

READ MORE: The total number of Ukrainian refugees exceeds the most pessimistic estimate of the UN

In other developments on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy’s office said 86 Ukrainian servicemen had been released in the Zaporizhzhia region as part of a prisoner swap with Russia. The number of Russians freed was not disclosed.

Over the past week, the Kremlin, in an apparent shift in its war aims, has declared its “main objective” to be full control of Donbass.

Donbass is the industrial region in eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014. The separatists have declared two regions independent republics.

The capture of Mariupol, in particular, would be a major prize for the Russians, giving them an unbroken land bridge to Crimea.

Amid the Russian retreat on the ground and its continued shelling, the Ukrainian military said it had recaptured 29 settlements in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions.

Russian forces in the northeast also continued to shell Kharkiv, and in the southeast sought to seize the towns of Popasna and Rubizhne as well as Mariupol, the Ukrainian military said.

Andrea Rosa in Irpin, Ukraine, and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.


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