MALA ROHAN/NEAR IRPIN — Russian forces bombed the outskirts of Kiev and a besieged city in northern Ukraine on Wednesday, a day after promising to wind down operations there in what the West dismissed as a ploy to regroup by invaders who suffered heavy casualties.
Nearly five weeks after an invasion in which Russia failed to take a major city, the top UN human rights official said Moscow bombed 50 hospitals, homes and schools across Ukraine, which could amount to war crimes.
Ukrainian officials called on Russia for it said on Tuesday it would curtail operations near Kiev and the northern city of Chernihiv “to increase mutual trust” for peace talks.
“It’s not true,” Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a video address to EU regional officials. “All night we listened to sirens, rocket attacks and huge explosions east of Kiev and north of Kiev. There are huge battles there, people died, are still dying.”
On Wednesday morning, heavy bombing could be heard in Kiev from suburbs where Ukrainian forces have recaptured territory in recent days. The capital itself was not hit, but windows rattled from the relentless artillery on the outskirts.
Southeast of Irpin, a suburb of Kiev that has been in intense fighting for weeks, frequent shelling and explosions of ammunition on the ground and in the air could be heard. Ukrainians who were evacuating spoke of heavy shelling north of Irpin and grenades landing in Irpin itself. Rescuers retrieved the bodies from the ruins.
Ukraine and Western leaders had warned that Moscow’s apparent peace gesture during Tuesday’s Istanbul talks was a cover for reorganizing forces that had not taken Kiev.
Russia’s defense ministry said on Wednesday its forces had reached their targets near Kiev and Chernihiv and were regrouping to focus on the “liberation” of the breakaway eastern Donbas region.
The spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, said the Ukrainian armed forces have observed some movements of Russian troops from the Kiev and Chernihiv regions, but do not consider this a mass withdrawal by Moscow.
“It is preparing to resume offensive operations,” he said.
‘RUSSIA ALWAYS LIES’
Chernihiv mayor Vladyslav Astroshenko said Russian bombing of that city had intensified in the past 24 hours, with more than 100,000 people trapped inside with just enough food and medical supplies to last about another week.
“This is yet another confirmation that Russia always lies,” he told CNN, adding that 25 civilians were injured in a “colossal mortar attack” in the city center.
Reuters could not verify the situation in Chernihiv. The Russian Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Irpin itself was recaptured by Ukrainian troops this week. Reuters journalists who came in on Tuesday saw Ukrainian troops patrolling an abandoned ghost town with ruined buildings, with the body of an old man and woman on the street.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made it clear that he would not take anything Moscow said at face value.
“Ukrainians are not naive people,” he said in a late-night speech. “The only thing they can rely on is a concrete result.”
Zelenskiy discussed with US President Joe Biden on Wednesday more aid to Ukraine and further sanctions against Russia, the two sides said.
About a quarter of Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes and the United Nations said on Wednesday the number of people who have fled the country has risen above 4 million. More than half of those refugees are children and the rest are mostly women.
Over the past week, Ukrainian forces have recaptured towns and villages on the outskirts of Kiev, broken the siege on the eastern city of Sumy and pushed back Russian forces in the southwest.
In the village of Mala Rohan in the eastern region of Kharkov, two burnt-out tanks had broken turrets near damaged houses. Maksym, a Ukrainian soldier, said the Russians were being pushed back “slowly but steadily”.
“Most of them already understood that they made a big mistake when they came here. That’s why I don’t think they have a chance here, we will win.”
Russia says it is conducting a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbor. Western countries say that the invasion of Moscow was not provoked at all.
The Donbas region, where Russia says it is now focusing its efforts, includes Mariupol, where heavy fighting was again reported on Wednesday. The port city, with a pre-war population of more than 400,000 people, has been devastated after a month of Russian siege, and the United Nations says thousands may have died there.
Russian troops shelled almost all towns along the region’s front lines on Wednesday, the governor of Donetsk, which is part of the Donbass, said.
The British Ministry of Defense said Moscow’s pledge to focus on the Donbas was likely “a tacit admission that it is struggling to advance more than one major advance”.
Western sanctions have largely isolated Russia from world trade, but Moscow is still Europe’s largest supplier of oil and gas and its new demand for payment in rubles, rejected by the West, has heightened fears of energy shortages in Europe. Russian sources told Reuters it could keep the contract currency as it is, with the final payment in rubles.
Two sources told Reuters that the European Union could have new sanctions against Russia ready as early as next week, with the extent of the measures depending on Moscow’s stance.
Germany, Russia’s largest gas consumer, issued an “early warning” on Wednesday of a potential emergency if Russia were to cut supplies.
Economics Secretary Robert Habeck urged consumers and businesses to cut consumption, saying “Every kilowatt hour counts”.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Gleb Garanich and Reuters bureaus Writing by Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Gareth Jones)