Ukraine’s capital barraged; 3 EU nation leaders to visit

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KYIV: Russia’s relentless bombardment of Ukraine edged closer to central Kyiv as a series of strikes hit a residential neighborhood Tuesday, while the leaders of three European Union countries planned a bold visit to Ukraine’s capital and the number of people the war has driven from the country passed 3 million.

Large explosions thundered across Kyiv before dawn from what Ukrainian authorities said were artillery strikes, as Russia’s assault on the city appeared to become more systematic. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said barrages hit four multi-story buildings in the city and caused dozens of deaths.

The strikes targeted a western district of Kyiv, disrupting a relative calm that returned after an initial advance by Russian forces was stopped in the early days of the war. Tuesday’s shelling ignited a huge fire in a 15-story apartment building and spurred a frantic rescue effort.

As Russia stepped up its assault on Kyiv, the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia set out for Ukraine’s embattled capital by train to show support for the country.

“The aim of the visit is to express the European Union’s unequivocal support for Ukraine and its freedom and independence,” Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said in a tweet. He was joined by Janez Jansa of Slovenia, Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s de-facto leader.

EU officials characterized the visit as one the central European leaders had undertaken independently despite security risks. The 27-nation bloc’s other leaders were “informed” of the trip but did not sanction it, EU officials said.

The International Organization for Migration said the number of people who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24 passed 3 million on Tuesday. The UN has described the flood of people crossing into Poland and other neighboring countries as Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators also planned to hold a second day of talks as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reached its 20th day. The Red Cross and the United Nations refugee agency say millions of people face food and medicine shortages along with the immediate conflict threats of shelling and air attacks.

The Ukrainian government said new aid and evacuation efforts would take place Tuesday along nine corridors around the country, including the Kyiv region. But past attempts have repeatedly failed amid continued fighting.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said an evacuation involving 30 buses was planned from Sumy in northeast Ukraine. The organization said it still had not gotten aid to Mariupol, an encircled port city of 430,000 where local officials estimate a lethal siege has killed more than 2,300 people and left residents desperate for food, water, heat and medicine.

Russia’s invasion has shocked the world, upended Europe’s post-Cold War security order and driven millions from their homes. Russia’s military is bigger and better equipped than Ukraine’s, but its troops have faced stiffer-than-expected resistance, bolstered by arms supplied by the West.

When Russia launched the war three weeks ago, fear of an imminent invasion gripped the Ukrainian capital, and residents slept in subway stations or crammed onto trains to flee. But as the Russian offensive bogged down, Kyiv saw a relative lull. US officials say Russian forces were about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the center of the city as of Monday.

Fighting has intensified on Kyiv’s outskirts in recent days, and sporadic air raid sirens ring out around the capital.

The early morning artillery strikes hit the Svyatoshynskyi district of western Kyiv, adjacent to the suburb of Irpin, which has seen some of the worst battles of the war.

Flames shot out of the 15-story apartment building and smoke choked the air as firefighters climbed ladders to rescue people. The assault blackened several floors of the building, ripped a hole in the ground outside and blew out windows in neighboring apartment blocks.

Rescue workers said one person died and several were rescued but others remained inside.

“Yesterday we extinguished one fire, today another, it is very difficult,” said one young firefighter as he took a brief break outside the building, tears falling from his eyes.

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