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Ceasefire talks mooted after Russia shells Ukrainian cities
Ceasefire talks mooted after Russia shells Ukrainian cities

Ceasefire talks mooted after Russia shells Ukrainian cities

Russia on Wednesday mooted the possibility of ceasefire talks with Ukraine after Russian forces shelled several Ukrainian cities and troops battled in the streets of Kharkiv.

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Ukraine said a delegation was "on its way" for the talks at an undisclosed location on the Belarus-Poland border but Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Kyiv would not accept "ultimatums".

Speaking seven days since President Vladimir Putin ordered Moscow's troops to attack Ukraine, Russian negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said the Ukrainian officials were expected at the location on Thursday.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled their country since the invasion began, while the West has imposed sanctions to cripple Russia's economy.

Russia revealed on Wednesday that 498 of its troops had been killed in Ukraine -- the first official death toll Moscow has given during its assault.

- Kyiv 'will hold' -

Russian troops have defied the world and advanced into pro-Western Ukraine but have encountered determined resistance from a much smaller army.

Several civilians were also reported killed in the latest shelling on Wednesday, adding to a civilian death toll of at least 350 people, including 14 children, according to Ukrainian authorities.

Russia also said it had captured the Black Sea port of Kherson on the seventh day of Moscow's invasion, while Russian artillery massed outside the capital Kyiv -- raising fears of an imminent assault.

AFP saw the aftermath of apparent Russian bombing on a market and a residential area in Zhytomyr, around 150 kilometres (93 miles) from Kyiv, and in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second biggest city.

"There is nowhere in Kharkiv where shells have not yet struck," said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, after Russian airborne troops landed in the city before dawn.

In Kyiv, mayor Vitali Klitschko said that "the enemy is drawing up forces closer to the capital".

"Kyiv is holding and will hold. We are going to fight," the former champion boxer added.

Many residents have been hunkered down for a week and dozens of families could be seen sheltering on Wednesday in the Dorohozhychi metro station.

"What happens to us down here when the food runs out? Do we try to get out and run?" said Volodymyr Dovgan, a 40-year-old IT engineer.

- 'Erase us all' -

In a video address on Wednesday, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian forces wanted to "erase our country, erase us all".

The leader said Tuesday's strike on a television mast in the capital Kyiv demonstrated Russia's threat to Ukrainian identity.

Five people were killed in the attack on the tower at Babi Yar, the site of a Nazi massacre in which over 33,000 people were killed -- most of them Jews.

The 44-year-old Zelensky, who is himself Jewish, urged Jewish people around the world to speak up.

"Nazism is born in silence. So, shout about killings of civilians. Shout about the murders of Ukrainians," he said.

In New York, Ukraine's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said that "the goal of Russia is not an occupation only. It is genocide."

The UN said nearly 875,000 people have fled since the conflict began, including thousands of students and migrant workers from Africa and the Middle East who had been living in Ukraine.

"We left everything there as they came and ruined our lives," said Svitlana Mostepanenko, a refugee registering in Prague.

- 'The city will die' -

While Ukrainian forces have held Russian forces back from the country's main cities, the Russian army said it was now in "full control" of Kherson, a city with a population of 290,000 people.

The claim was not confirmed by Kherson mayor Igor Nikolayev who appealed on Facebook for permission to transport the dead and wounded out of the city and for food and medicine to be allowed in.

"Without all this, the city will die," he wrote.

Ukraine's army also said there was a fierce battle under way in Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine near the Russian border with a population of 1.4 million.

"There is an ongoing fight between the invaders and the Ukrainians," the army said on the messaging app Telegram.

Shelling in Kharkiv on Tuesday drew comparisons to the massacres of civilians in Sarajevo in the 1990s and condemnation for what Zelensky called a "war crime".

The city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea was also reportedly encircled by Russian forces.

In an important strategic victory, Russian troops attacking from the Crimean peninsula said they had linked up along the Azov Sea coast with pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The separatists have been fighting Ukrainian government forces since 2014 in a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.

As the civilian death toll mounts, there is growing opposition to the conflict within Russia, with thousands detained for taking part in anti-war protests.

"I am urging everyone to take to the streets and fight for peace," jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said in a statement posted on Facebook.

He called on Russians not to be afraid of going to prison.

"Everything has a price and now, in the spring of 2022, we should pay that price."

- 'Russia will be a pariah' -

Western countries have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia's economy and there have been international bans and boycotts against Russia in everything from finance to tech, from sports to the arts.

In his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden had called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "dictator" and warned of more sanctions to cripple Russia's economy.

In the latest move, the EU banned broadcasts of Russian state media RT and Sputnik and excluded seven Russian banks from the global SWIFT bank messaging system.

The list did not name two major Russian banks, Sberbank and Gazprombank, which were left connected to SWIFT to allow EU countries to pay for Russian gas and oil deliveries.

EU and NATO members have also sent arms and ammunition to Ukraine, although they have made clear that they will not send troops and the EU has dampened Zelensky's hopes of membership of the bloc.

Western companies meanwhile have pulled out of projects in Russia, deepening the economic toll on Moscow that saw the ruble collapse this week.

German logistics giant DHL was one of the latest to announce a ban, saying it would stop deliveries to Russia and neighbouring Belarus, which has allowed the passage of Russian troops to attack Ukraine.

The invasion has roiled global markets, with crude surging past $110 a barrel at one point on Wednesday and equities sinking.

Aluminium and gas prices hit record highs on supply fears and the Moscow Stock Exchange failed to open for a third day running.