Kyiv: Russian forces have seized a strategic Ukrainian seaport and besieged another as part of efforts to cut the country off from its coastline, even as Moscow said Thursday it was ready for talks to end the fighting that has sent more than 1 million people fleeing over Ukraine’s borders.
The Russian military said it had control of Kherson, and local Ukrainian officials confirmed that forces have taken over local government headquarters in the Black Sea port of 280,000, making it the first major city to fall since the invasion began a week ago.
Elsewhere, the Russians pressed their offensive on multiple fronts, though a column of tanks and other vehicles has apparently been stalled for days outside the capital of Kyiv. Heavy fighting continued Thursday on the outskirts of another strategic port city on the Azov Sea, Mariupol, plunging it into darkness, isolation and fear. Electricity and phone connections are largely down, and homes and shops are facing food and water shortages.
Without phone connections, medics didn’t know where to take the wounded.
In just seven days of fighting, more than 2% of Ukraine’s population has been forced out of the country, according to the tally the U.N. refugee agency released to The Associated Press. The mass evacuation could be seen in Kharkiv, a city of about 1.4 million people and Ukraine’s second-largest. Residents desperate to escape falling shells and bombs crowded the city’s train station and pressed onto trains, not always knowing where they were headed.
At least 227 civilians have been killed and another 525 wounded in that time, according to the latest figures from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. It acknowledges that is a vast undercount, and Ukraine earlier said more than 2,000 civilians have died. That figure could not be independently verified.
As the toll of war mounted, a second round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations was expected later Thursday in neighboring Belarus though the two sides appeared to have little common ground.
“We are ready to conduct talks, but we will continue the operation because we won’t allow Ukraine to preserve a military infrastructure that threatens Russia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, repeating an accusation Moscow has repeatedly used to justify its invasion.
Lavrov said that the West has continuously armed Ukraine, trained its troops and built up bases there to turn Ukraine into a bulwark against Russia.
The U.S. and its allies have insisted that NATO is a defensive alliance that doesn’t pose a threat to Russia. And the West fears Russia’s invasion is meant to overthrow Ukraine’s government and install a friendly government though Lavrov said Moscow would let the Ukrainians choose what government they should have.
Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier raised the specter of nuclear war, putting his country’s nuclear forces on high alert, but his foreign minister shrugged off questions of whether Russia could escalate the conflict with nuclear weapons, saying such talk comes from the West.
In Kherson, the Russians took over the regional administration headquarters, Hennady Lahuta, the governor of the region, said Thursday while adding that he and other officials were continuing to perform their duties and provide assistance to the population.
Kherson’s mayor, Igor Kolykhaev, previously said that the national flag was still flying, but that there were no Ukrainian troops in the city. Britain’s defense secretary said it was possible the Russians had taken over, though not yet verified.
The mayor said the city would maintain a strict curfew and require pedestrians to walk in groups no larger than two, obey commands to stop and not to provoke the troops.
The flag flying over us is Ukrainian, he wrote on Facebook. And for it to stay that way, these demands must be observed.
Earlier Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russian land forces have stalled and Moscow is now unleashing air attacks, but that they are being parried by Ukrainian defense systems, including in Kherson.
Kyiv withstood the night and another missile and bomb attack. Our air defenses worked, he said. Kherson, Izyum all the other cities that the occupiers hit from the air did not give up anything.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said explosions heard overnight in the Ukrainian capital were Russian missiles being shot down by air defense systems.
From Kherson, Russian troops appeared to roll toward Mykolaiv, another major Black Sea port and shipbuilding center to the west along the coast. The regional governor, Vitaliy Kim, said that big convoys of Russian troops are advancing on the city but said that they will likely need to regroup before trying to take it over.
A group of Russian amphibious landing vessels is also heading toward the port of Odesa, farther west, the Ukrainian military said. (AP)