KYIV: Moscow ordered its troops to advance in Ukraine “from all directions” on Saturday, as the Ukrainian capital Kyiv imposed a blanket curfew after fighting in the city that saw Russian troops pushed back.
Ukrainian officials said 198 civilians, including three children, had been killed since Russia invaded on Thursday, and warned Russian saboteurs were active in Kyiv as explosions rocked the capital, forcing residents to flee to safety underground.
Moscow said it fired cruise missiles at military targets, and would “develop the offensive from all directions” after accusing Ukraine of having “rejected” talks.
But, on day three of Russia’s invasion, defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed his country would never give in to the Kremlin. Washington said the invading force had a “lack of momentum”.
Ukraine’s army said it held back an assault on the capital – but was fighting Russian “sabotage groups” which had infiltrated the city.
Zelensky said in a video message: “We will fight until we have liberated our country.”
He earlier said Ukraine had “derailed” Moscow’s plan to overthrow him and urged Russians to pressure President Vladimir Putin into stopping the conflict.
The Pentagon estimates that half of the invasion force built up by Russia on Ukraine’s borders in recent months is now inside the country.
But there had been a “lack of momentum over the last 24 hours”, and the Russian military had still not gained air superiority over the country, a US official said.
‘I was trembling’
Ignoring warnings from the West, Putin on Thursday unleashed a full-scale invasion that the UN refugee agency says has forced almost 150,000 people to flee to next-door countries.
Tens of thousands more are estimated to be displaced within Ukraine, with many heading west away from intense clashes.
In neighbouring Romania, Olga, 36, was among hundreds to have crossed the Danube river with her three young children to safety.
“My husband came with us as far as the border, before returning to Kyiv to fight,” she said.
Thousands more made their way to Poland by train.
“Attacks were everywhere,” said Diana, a 37-year-old who fled the Ukrainian capital.
“My mother is still in Kyiv.”
In the capital, residents sought sanctuary in subway stations and cellars, while Zelensky announced a baby girl had been born on the metro.
The city said anyone outside after 5pm would be considered “members of the enemy’s sabotage and reconnaissance groups”.
The curfew will last until 8am on Monday.
Yulia Snitko, a pregnant 32-year-old, said she had sheltered in the basement of her Kyiv apartment block on Friday night, fearing premature labour.
“It was more than one hour of huge explosions. I was trembling,” she said.
Thousands around the world demonstrated their solidarity with Ukraine on Saturday.
Zelensky said he asked UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to strip Russia of its vote at the UN Security Council as punishment for the invasion.
Earlier, he thanked “partners” for sending weapons and equipment, while Washington announced US$350 million of new military assistance.
Berlin said it would send Kyiv 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles, in a major U-turn from its longstanding policy of not exporting weapons to war zones.
Paris said it would deliver more arms to Ukraine.
‘Paralyse’ Russian assets
The European Union said it would remove “certain” Russian banks from the SWIFT bank messaging system and “paralyse” Russian central bank assets.
The move would cripple Russia’s trade with most of the world.
Germany had previously resisted the SWIFT move over concerns Russia could cut off key gas supplies.
The Kremlin has so far brushed off sanctions, including those targeting Putin personally, as a sign of Western impotence.
The UN Security Council will convene Sunday afternoon to vote on a resolution calling for a special session of the General Assembly over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, diplomats have said.
Nato said it will deploy its 40,000-strong rapid response force to eastern Europe for the first time, but stressed it will not send forces to Ukraine.
On the ground early Saturday, AFP reporters in Kyiv heard occasional blasts of what soldiers said were artillery and Grad missiles being fired in an area northwest of the city centre.
There were also loud explosions downtown.
Emergency services said a high-rise apartment block was hit overnight, with a hole five floors high blown out of the building.
Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko said the building had been hit by a missile, and that Russian forces were battling to advance from the northwest and west of the city.
“The enemy has not broken into the city, but sabotage groups are operating in Kyiv,” he said later.
Also earlier Saturday, AFP saw a destroyed Ukrainian military truck in the city centre and a civilian volunteer digging a trench for soldiers.
Ukrainian army tanks were also seen deploying across downtown Kyiv, but the streets were otherwise mostly empty and quiet except for the sound of air raid sirens and birdsong.
Putin has said Russia’s offensive is to defend Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The rebels have been fighting Ukrainian government forces for eight years in a conflict in which more than 14,000 people have been killed.
Putin called the current conflict a “special military operation” and Russia’s communications regulator on Saturday told independent media to remove reports describing it as an “assault, invasion, or declaration of war”.
The regulator accused the outlets of spreading “untrue information” about the conflict.
Russia also released images of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, with a masked soldier saying radiation was “under control”.
The publication appeared to be part of a major Kremlin propaganda campaign downplaying the conflict domestically.