Air raid sirens in Ukraine capital; Russians pressure cities

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Lviv: Air raid sirens blared over Ukraine’s capital on Wednesday as officials said they were bolstering defenses in key cities threatened by Russian forces.

Thousands of people are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, in almost two weeks of fighting since President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded.

While Russian troops have seen their advance slowed  by fiercer than expected Ukrainian resistance, they have laid siege to several cities, trapping civilians inside them with little or no food, water or medicine.

Repeated efforts to establish safe evacuation routes out of several urban areas have failed, though a few thousand people managed to flee the northeastern city of Sumy via a safe corridor on Tuesday.

Residents of the encircled port city of Mariupol  were not so lucky: Some of the worst desperation of the war is unfolding there, but an attempt to evacuate civilians and deliver badly needed supplies failed, with Ukrainian officials saying Russian forces had fired on the convoy before it reached the city.

Another effort to bring people out of Sumy, a city near the Russian border that has seen deadly shelling in recent days, is planned for Wednesday, according to regional administration chief Dmytro Zhyvytskyy.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s general staff of the armed forces said in a statement that it was building up defenses in cities in the north, south and east, and that forces around Kyiv, the capital, were resisting the Russian offensive with unspecified strikes and “holding the line.”

In the northern city of Chernihiv, Russian forces are placing military equipment among residential buildings and on farms, the Ukrainian general staff said.

And in the south, it said Russians dressed in civilian clothes are advancing on the city of Mykolaiv, a Black Sea shipbuilding center of a half-million people.

It did not provide any details of new fighting.

Talks aimed at ending the fighting have so far yielded little, but the foreign ministers from Russia and Ukraine are expected to meet in Turkey on Thursday, according to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

The meeting was to take place on the sidelines of a summit hosted by Turkey, a NATO member nation, but no further details were announced.

In Kyiv, back-to-back air alerts Wednesday morning urged residents to get to bomb shelters as quickly as possible over fears of incoming Russian missiles. An all-clear was given for each alert soon afterward.

Such alerts are intermittent, keeping people on edge. Kyiv has been relatively quiet in recent days, though Russian artillery has pounded the outskirts.

Kyiv regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said the crisis for civilians was growing in the capital, with the situation particularly critical in the city’s suburbs.

“Russia is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kyiv region, frustrating the evacuation of people and continuing shelling and bombing small communities,” he said.

More than 2 million people have now fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations.

As Moscow’s forces have laid siege to Ukrainian cities, the fighting has thwarted attempts to create corridors to safely evacuate civilians.

One evacuation did appear successful, with Ukrainian authorities saying Tuesday that 5,000 civilians, including 1,700 foreign students, had been brought out of Sumy.

That corridor was to reopen for 12 hours on Wednesday, with the buses that brought people southwest to the city of Poltava the day before returning to pick up more refugees, Zhyvytskyy said.

Priority was being given to pregnant women, women with children, the elderly and the disabled.

Russia, which calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation,” has focused official statements about the war almost exclusively on fighting and evacuations in the separatist regions, where Russian-backed forces have been fighting Ukraine’s military since 2014.

On Wednesday, Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Russian forces had thwarted a large-scale attack plot in the east, citing in a televised statement what he claimed was an intercepted Ukrainian National Guard document.

He did not address Russia’s shelling, airstrikes and attacks on Ukrainian civilians or cities, Russian military casualties or any other aspect of its bogged-down campaign.

In the south, Russian troops have advanced deep along Ukraine’s coastline in an effort that could establish a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

The city of Mariupol has been surrounded by Russian soldiers for days and a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the encircled city of 430,000.

Corpses lie in the streets of the city, which sits on the Asov Sea. Hungry people break into stores in search of food and melt snow for water. Thousands huddle in basements, trembling at the sound of Russian shells pounding their city.

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