Russian forces captured the southeastern Ukrainian city of Melitopol on Saturday, Russia's Interfax news agency reported, as Moscow launched coordinated cruise missile and artillery strikes on several cities, including the capital Kyiv.
Ukrainian officials were not immediately available for comment on the fate of Melitopol, a city of about 150,000 people. If the Interfax report citing the Russian defence ministry is confirmed, it would be the first significant population centre the Russians have seized since their invasion began on Thursday.
Earlier, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces fired cruise missiles from the Black Sea at Mariupol, also in the southeast, as well as Sumy in the northeast and Poltava in the east.
Another video of the shelling pic.twitter.com/vt2ZqL8jcP
— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) February 26, 2022
Kyiv authorities said a missile hit a residential building, and a Reuters witness said another hit an area near the airport. There was no immediate word on casualties. Gunfire erupted near city-centre government buildings at around dawn, a Reuters witness said. The cause was not clear.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, speaking in a video message from outside his Kyiv office, was defiant.
"We will not put down weapons, we will defend our state," he said.
Russian and Ukrainian forces also clashed on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital on Saturday as authorities urged citizens to help defend the city from advancing Russian forces.
Russian military helicopters are conducting strikes in the north of Kiev Oblast. pic.twitter.com/vblNqyTWK3
— CaucasusWarReport (@Caucasuswar) February 26, 2022
Heavy, frequent artillery fire and intense gunfire, apparently some distance from the city centre, could be heard in Kyiv in the early hours, a Reuters witness said. The Ukrainian military claimed Russian troops attacked an army base on a main Kyiv avenue but the assault was repelled.
But even as the fighting grew more intense, the Russian and Ukrainian governments signalled an openness to negotiations, offering the first glimmer of hope for diplomacy since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the attack on Thursday.
Reportedly video of MLRS strikes in Kharkiv from earlier today. https://t.co/bXQxlBQScD pic.twitter.com/Pr7fEOOZI4
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) February 26, 2022
"The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday in a video address posted to his Telegram channel. "Tonight, they will launch an assault. All of us must understand what awaits us. We must withstand this night."
The air force command reported heavy fighting near the airbase at Vasylkiv southwest of the capital, which it said was under attack from Russian paratroopers.
It also claimed one of its fighters had shot down a Russian transport plane. Reuters could not independently verify the claims.
Kyiv residents were told by the defence ministry to make petrol bombs to repel the attackers, as witnesses reported hearing artillery rounds and intense gunfire from the western part of the city.
Another video from Kharkiv. https://t.co/UKGYvnuQWj pic.twitter.com/jesvV6RUFC
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) February 26, 2022
Russia's defence ministry said their forces used air- and ship-based cruise missiles to carry out overnight strikes on military targets in Ukraine, Interfax said.
It said Russian troops had hit hundreds of military infrastructure targets and destroyed several aircraft and dozens of tanks and armoured and artillery vehicles.
After weeks of warnings from Western leaders, Putin unleashed a three-pronged attack on Ukraine from the north, east and south on Thursday, in an attack that threatened to upend Europe's post-Cold War order.
"I once again appeal to the military personnel of the armed forces of Ukraine: do not allow neo-Nazis and (Ukrainian radical nationalists) to use your children, wives and elders as human shields," Putin said at a televised meeting with Russia's Security Council on Friday. "Take power into your own hands."
Putin has cited the need to "denazify" Ukraine's leadership as one of his main reasons for the attack, accusing it of genocide against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies dismiss the accusations as baseless propaganda.
Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence at the fall of the Soviet Union and Kyiv hopes to join NATO and the EU – aspirations that infuriate Moscow.
Video of a vehicle on fire reportedly on Kyiv’s Prospect Pobedy. https://t.co/AKEnkp6Ow9 pic.twitter.com/Cyl5KF0vLN
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) February 26, 2022
Putin says Ukraine, a democratic nation of 44 million people, is an illegitimate state carved out of Russia, a view Ukrainians see as aimed at erasing their more than thousand-year history.
'Ready to talk'
Western countries have announced a barrage of sanctions on Russia, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology exports. But they have so far stopped short of forcing it out of the SWIFT system for international bank payments.
The United States imposed sanctions on Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The European Union and Britain earlier froze any assets Putin and Lavrov held in their territory. Canada took similar steps.
Read: Nearly 120 Ukrainian military targets hit as Russian forces drive on Kyiv
However, the steady ramping-up of economic restrictions has not deterred Putin.
Moscow said on Friday it had captured the Hostomel airfield northwest of the capital – a potential staging post for an assault on Kyiv that has been fought over since Russian paratroopers landed there in the first hours of the war.
This could not be confirmed and Ukrainian authorities reported heavy fighting there.
But amid the chaos of war came a ray of hope.
A spokesman for Zelenskiy said Ukraine and Russia would consult in coming hours on a time and place for talks.
The Kremlin said earlier it offered to meet in the Belarusian capital Minsk after Ukraine expressed a willingness to discuss declaring itself a neutral country while Ukraine had proposed Warsaw as the venue. That, according to Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov, resulted in a "pause" in contacts.
"Ukraine was and remains ready to talk about a ceasefire and peace," Zelenskiy's spokesman, Sergii Nykyforov, said in a post on Facebook. "We agreed to the proposal of the President of the Russian Federation."
But US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Russia's offer was an attempt to conduct diplomacy "at the barrel of a gun" and that Putin's military must stop bombing Ukraine if it was serious about negotiations.
At the UN, Russia vetoed a draft Security Council resolution that would have deplored its attack, while China abstained, a move Western countries viewed as proof of Russia's isolation. The United Arab Emirates and India also abstained while the remaining 11 members voted in favour.
A picture of what was happening on the ground across Ukraine – the largest country in Europe after Russia – was slow to emerge.
Zelenskiy wrote on Twitter that there had been heavy fighting with deaths at the entrance to the eastern cities of Chernihiv and Melitopol, as well as at Hostomel.
Witnesses said they had heard explosions and gunfire near the airport in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, close to Russia's border. Ukraine's military said Russian troops had been stopped with heavy losses near the northeastern city of Konotop.
There were also have reports of fighting near an air base some 30 km (20 miles) southwest of Kyiv.
Britain's defence ministry said Russian armoured forces had opened a new route of advance towards the capital after failing to take Chernihiv.
Ukraine claimed more than 1,000 Russian soldiers had been killed. Russia did not release casualty figures. Zelenskiy said late on Thursday that 137 soldiers and civilians been killed in the fighting, with hundreds wounded.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart and condemned reported civilian deaths, including those of Ukrainian children, in attacks around Kyiv, the State Department said.
The White House asked Congress for $6.4 billion in security and humanitarian aid for the crisis, officials said, and Biden instructed the U.S. State Department to release $350 million in military aid.
Air raid sirens wailed over Kyiv for a second day on Friday as residents sheltered in underground metro stations. Windows were blasted out of a 10-storey apartment block near the main airport.