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Ukraine evening latest: Russian forces bid to cut country off from the sea as talks reconvene

Russian forces captured a strategic Ukrainian port and besieged another in a bid to cut the country off from the sea, as the two sides met for another round of talks aimed at stopping the fighting that has set off an exodus of over one million refugees.

Moscow's advance on Ukraine's capital has apparently stalled over the past few days, with a huge armoured column north of Kyiv at a standstill, but the military has made significant gains in the south as part of an effort to sever the country's connection to the Black and Azov seas.

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.

Heavy fighting continued on the outskirts of another strategic port, Mariupol, on the Azov Sea, plunging it into darkness, isolation and fear. Electricity and phone service were largely down, and homes and shops faced food and water shortages.

Without phone connections, medics did not know where to take the wounded. A second round of talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations began in neighbouring Belarus, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's office.

But the two sides appeared to have little common ground going into the meeting, and Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Ukraine that it must quickly accept the Kremlin's demand for its "demilitarisation" and declare itself neutral, formally renouncing its bid to join Nato.

Mr Putin has long contended that Ukraine's turn toward the West is a threat to Moscow, an argument he used to justify the invasion.

Despite a profusion of evidence of civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure by the Russian military, some of it documented by The Associated Press, Mr Putin also called accusations that his military had attacked residential areas part of "an anti-Russian disinformation campaign" and insisted that Russia uses "only precision weapons to exclusively destroy military infrastructure".

Ukrainians still in the country faced another grim day. In Kyiv, snow gave way to a cold, grey drizzle, as long lines formed outside the few pharmacies and bakeries that remain open. New shelling was reported in the northern city of Chernihiv, where the mayor said he was struggling to organise safe passage for civilians.

Families with children fled via muddy and snowy roads in the eastern region of Donetsk, while military strikes on the village of Yakovlivka near the eastern city of Kharkiv destroyed 30 homes, leaving three dead and seven injured, and rescuers pulled 10 people from the ruins, according to emergency authorities.

Ukrainian authorities called on the people to wage guerrilla warfare against Mr Putin's forces by cutting down trees, erecting barricades in the cities and attacking enemy columns from the rear.

"Total resistance... This is our Ukrainian trump card and this is what we can do best in the world," Ukrainian presidential aide Oleksiy Arestovich said in a video message, recalling guerrilla actions in Nazi-occupied Ukraine during the Second World War.

In just seven days of fighting, more than two per cent of Ukraine's population has been forced out of the country, according to the tally the UN refugee agency released to The Associated Press. The mass evacuation could be seen in Kharkiv, Russia's second-largest city, with about 1.4 million people. Residents desperate to escape falling shells and bombs crowded the railroad station and pressed onto trains, not always knowing where they were headed.

At least 227 civilians have been killed and 525 wounded in that time, according to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, though it acknowledged that is a vast undercount, and Ukraine earlier said more than 2,000 civilians have died. That figure could not be independently verified.

The aftermath of an airstrike in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv (National Police of Ukraine)

Meanwhile, a senior US defence official said the immense Russian column of hundreds of tanks and other vehicles appeared to be stalled roughly 16 miles from Kyiv and had made no real progress in the last few days. The convoy, which earlier in the week had seemed poised to launch an assault on the capital, has been plagued with fuel and food shortages, the official said.

Mr Zelensky said that Russian land forces have stalled and Moscow is now unleashing air attacks, but that they are being parried by Ukrainian defence systems, including in Kherson.

"Kyiv withstood the night and another missile and bomb attack. Our air defences worked," he said. "Kherson, Izyum - all the other cities that the occupiers hit from the air did not give up anything."

Kyiv mayor and former boxer Vitali Klitschko said explosions heard overnight in the Ukrainian capital were Russian missiles being shot down by air defence systems. In Kherson, the Russians took over the regional administration headquarters, said Hennady Lahuta, governor of the region. But he added that he and other officials continued to perform their duties.

From Kherson, Russian troops appeared to roll toward Mykolaiv, another major Black Sea port and shipbuilding centre to the west. The regional governor, Vitaliy Kim, said that big convoys of Russian troops were advancing on the city.

Russian shelling in Mariupol (AP)

A group of Russian amphibious landing vessels also headed toward the port of Odesa, farther west, the Ukrainian military said. Russia reported its military casualties on Wednesday for the first time in the war, saying nearly 500 of its troops have been killed and almost 1,600 wounded. Ukraine insisted Russia's losses are many times higher but did not disclose its own military casualties.

In a video address to the nation early on Thursday, Mr Zelensky praised his country's resistance.

"We are a people who in a week have destroyed the plans of the enemy," he said. "They will have no peace here. They will have no food. They will have here not one quiet moment."

He said the fighting is taking a toll on the morale of Russian soldiers, who "go into grocery stores and try to find something to eat".

"These are not warriors of a superpower," he said. "These are confused children who have been used."

Around Ukraine, others crowded into train stations, carrying children wrapped in blankets and dragging wheeled suitcases into new lives as refugees. Among the million-plus refugees who have fled Ukraine in recent days were some 200 orphans with severe physical and mental disabilities who arrived from Kyiv by train in Hungary on Wednesday.

Kharkiv University on fire as shelling continues to kill civilians in the area (State Emergency Service of Ukraine/PA Wire)

In other developments:

- French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken for 90 minutes by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who told Mr Macron the war in Ukraine is "going according to plan", a French official said. The official at the French Elysee presidential palace said Mr Putin told Mr Macron the invasion will continue "until the end" unless negotiations meet his terms.

- Mr Putin said negotiations must centre on the "neutralisation and disarmament of Ukraine," according to the French official. Mr Putin reportedly said he would attain that goal by military means, if not by political and diplomatic means. The official said the two leaders spoke at Mr Putin's request.

- Poland's most powerful politician says his country will raise its defence spending to three per cent of GDP starting next year, amid the new security threat following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is deputy prime minister for security and the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, told parliament that Poland needs a strong army.

- At least 22 civilians have been killed in a Russian airstrike on the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, Ukraine said. Rescuers are searching the debris.

- Boris Johnson was under pressure to go faster in targeting Russian oligarchs and seizing their assets in Britain, after it was conceded it could take "weeks and months" to build legally-sound cases.

- Universities should not carry out blanket boycotts of Russian academics over the invasion of Ukraine, sector body Universities UK has said.

- The UN human rights chief says military operations in Ukraine are "escalating further as we speak" and warned of "concerning reports" of the use of cluster bombs.

- Ukrainian forces are battling Russian troops for control of Enerhodar, which has Europe's largest nuclear plant, the city's mayor said.

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