Russia’s assault continues amid optimism over talks

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces destroyed a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering on Wednesday and rained fire on other towns, Ukrainian authorities said, even as both sides made optimism about efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting.

The airstrike destroyed the center of the once elegant building, where hundreds of civilians lived since their homes were destroyed in the fighting, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Many people were buried under the rubble, the statement said, although there was no immediate word on the number of people killed or injured. Satellite imagery from Monday showed the word “CHILDREN” written in Russian in large white capital letters on the sidewalk in front and behind the building, space technology company Maxar said.

“My heart breaks because of what Russia is doing to our people, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his evening speech, calling for more sanctions against Russia after the attack.

The Russian Defense Ministry denied bombing the theater or anywhere else in Mariupol on Wednesday.

In Kyiv, residents crammed into homes and shelters during a citywide curfew set to last until Thursday morning as Russian troops shelled areas in and around the city, including a residential area 2.5 kilometers from the presidential palace. A 12-storey building in central kyiv caught fire after being hit by shrapnel.

And 10 people were killed while queuing for bread in the northern city of Chernihiv, Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said.

Earlier on Wednesday, Zelenskyy appeared before the US Congress via video and, citing Pearl Harbor and 9/11, pleaded with America for more weapons and tougher sanctions on Russia, saying, “We need you now.”

US President Joe Biden has announced that the United States will send an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine, including more anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons and drones. He also called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” in his strongest condemnation of the Russian leader since the start of the invasion.

International pressure against the Kremlin intensified and its isolation deepened when the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, ordered Russia to stop attacking Ukraine, even if there was little hope that she would comply. In addition, the 47-nation Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, expelled Russia..

As Moscow’s ground advance on the Ukrainian capital appeared largely stalled, Putin said in a speech Wednesday that the operation was proceeding “successfully, in strict accordance with pre-approved plans.” He also denounced Western sanctions, accusing the West of trying to “rush us, pressurize us, make us a weak and dependent country”.

And he accused Russians who sympathize with the West or who have adopted Western lifestyles of being a “so-called fifth column” and “national traitors”.

The anti-Western rhetoric came as Russian law enforcement announced the first known criminal cases in a news that allows prison sentences of up to 15 years for publishing what the Kremlin considers false information about the war. Among those charged was Veronika Belotserkovskaya, an author of Russian-language cookbooks and a popular blogger living abroad.

Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia resumed talks via video on Wednesday, with Zelenskyy’s adviser Mikhailo Podolyak saying Ukraine demanded a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and guarantees of legal certainty for the Ukraine from several countries.

“This is only possible through direct dialogue” between Zelenskyy and Putin, he tweeted.

An official in Zelenskyy’s office told The Associated Press that the main topic of discussion was whether Russian troops would remain in the two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine after the war and where the borders would be.

Just before the war, Russia recognized the independence of two regions controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014 and extended the borders of these regions to areas Ukraine had always held, including the strategically important city of Mariupol, which suffered a brutal siege..

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks, said Ukraine insisted on including one or more Western nuclear powers in the negotiations and on signing a legally binding document. binding with security guarantees for Ukraine. In exchange, the official said, Ukraine was ready to discuss a neutral status.

Russia demanded that NATO pledge never to admit Ukraine into the alliance or station forces there.

After Tuesday’s talks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was “seriously discussed” by both sides, while Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands for ending the war became “more realistic”.

Hopes for diplomatic progress to end the war rose after Zelenskyy admitted Tuesday in the most explicit terms yet that Ukraine is unlikely to achieve its goal of joining NATO. Putin has long portrayed Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia.

Lavrov welcomed Zelenskyy’s comment and said the “entrepreneurship” starting to surface in the talks “gives hope that we can agree on this issue.”

“A neutral status is seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Lavrov told Russian television. “There are concrete formulations that I believe are close to being agreed.”

Prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough were highly uncertain, however, given the gap between Ukraine’s demand to completely withdraw invading forces and Russia’s presumed aim to replace kyiv’s west-facing government. by a pro-Moscow regime.

The fighting has led more than 3 million people to flee Ukraine, according to the United Nations estimate. The total death toll remains unknown, although Ukraine said thousands of civilians had died.

Addressing Congress, Zelenskyy said Russia “turned the Ukrainian skies into a source of death.” But Biden rejected Zelenskyy’s demands to send warplanes to Ukraine or to establish a no-fly zone over the country due to the risk of a war between the United States and Russia.

Amid the vast humanitarian crisis caused by the war, the Red Cross helped evacuate civilians from besieged areas and delivered 200 tonnes of aid, including medical supplies, blankets, water and more 5,200 body bags to help “ensure the dead are treated in a dignified manner.” »

Nowhere has it suffered more than Mariupol, where local officials say missile strikes and shelling have killed more than 2,300 people. The southern seaport of 430,000 people has been under attack for most of the three-week war in a siege that has left people struggling for food, water, heat and medicine.

Local authorities said Russian forces took hundreds of people hostage in a hospital in Mariupol and used them as human shields.

Using his mobile phone’s flashlight to illuminate a hospital basement, Dr. Valeriy Drengar pulled back a blanket to show the body of a 22-day-old baby. Other wrapped bodies also appeared to be children, given their size.

“These are the people we couldn’t save,” Drengar said.

Nearly 30,000 people managed to escape the city on Tuesday in thousands of vehicles through a humanitarian corridor, city officials said. Zelensky said another 6,000 left on Wednesday, including 2,000 children, but evacuations elsewhere were halted because of Russian shelling.

Kyiv regional chief Oleksiy Kuleba said Russian forces had intensified fighting in the outskirts of Kyiv and on a highway leading west, and in the capital region, “kindergartens, museums, churches, residential blocks and engineering infrastructure are suffering from endless fire.”

In other developments, the mayor of the city of Melitopol, who was seized by Russian forces five days ago, has been freed, said Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. No details were given on how he became free.

A senior US defense official said the Russians were still making little tangible progress in much of the country, but had begun shelling the outskirts of Odessa, Ukraine’s third-largest city and a major naval and maritime. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss US military assessments, said Russia’s objectives were unclear but Western officials have long worried about a ground assault on the coastal town.

Ukraine also appears to have succeeded, with Planet Labs PBC satellite photos analyzed by the AP showing burning helicopters and vehicles at the Russian-held Kherson airport and air base after a suspected Ukrainian strike on Tuesday.


Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, and other AP reporters around the world contributed to this report.


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