Russian forces are battling for control of a crucial energy-producing city in Ukraine’s south and gaining ground in their bid to cut off the country from the sea.
Ukrainian leaders, meanwhile, are calling on citizens to rise up and wage guerrilla war against the invaders.
The fighting at Enerhodar, a city on the Dnieper River that accounts for about one-quarter of the country’s power generation, came as the another round of talks between the two sides yielded what Ukraine said was a tentative agreement with Russia to set up safe corridors inside the country for evacuating citizens and delivering humanitarian aid.
The mayor of Enerhodar, the site of the biggest nuclear plant in Europe, said Ukrainian forces were battling Russian troops on the city’s outskirts.
Dmytro Orlov urged residents not to leave their homes.
Moscow’s advance on Ukraine’s capital in the north has apparently stalled over the past few days, with a huge armoured column outside Kyiv at a standstill.
And stiffer than expected resistance from the outmanned, outgunned Ukrainians has staved off the swift victory that Russia may have expected.
But the Russian forces have brought their superior firepower to bear in the past few days, launching missile and artillery attacks on civilian areas and making significant gains in the south as part of an effort to sever the country’s connection to the Black and Azov seas.
Cutting Ukraine’s access to the coastline would deal a crippling blow to the country’s economy and allow Russia to build a land corridor stretching from its border, across Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014, and all the way west to Romania.
The Russians announced the capture of Kherson, and local Ukrainian officials confirmed that forces have taken over local government headquarters in the vital 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 were concluded in neighbouring Belarus.
Vladimir Medinsky, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s adviser who led the Russian delegation in the talks in Belarus near the Polish border, said the parties’ “positions are absolutely clear, they are written down point by point”, including issues related to a political settlement of the conflict.
He added without elaboration that “mutual understanding was found on part of them”.
Both parties confirmed a third round of talks would be held soon.
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.
Mr Putin told French President Emmanuel Macron that he was determined to press on with his attack “until the end”, according to an official in the French president’s office.
I spoke to President Putin this morning. He refuses to stop his attacks on Ukraine at this point. It is vital to maintain dialogue to avoid human tragedy. I will continue my efforts and contacts. We must avoid the worst.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) March 3, 2022
Mr Macron admitted his efforts to broker peace had not yet borne fruit, saying in a tweet: “I spoke to President Putin this morning.
“He refuses to stop his attacks on Ukraine at this point.
“It is vital to maintain dialogue to avoid human tragedy.
“I will continue my efforts and contacts.
“We must avoid the worst.”
Despite a profusion of evidence of civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure by the Russian military, 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 emergency officials said at least 22 civilians had been killed in a Russian bombardment of a residential area.
They warned that the number of casualties could grow as rescuers search the debris.
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 2% 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, Ukraine’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.
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.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr 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.
A group of Russian amphibious landing vessels also headed toward the port of Odesa, farther west, the Ukrainian military said.