Russia’s onslaught continues amid optimism over talks | News

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KYIV, Ukraine — Russian forces destroyed a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering Wednesday and rained fire on other cities, Ukrainian authorities said, even as the two sides projected optimism over efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting.

The airstrike ripped apart the center of the once-elegant building, where hundreds of civilians had been living since their homes had been destroyed in the fighting, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Many people were buried in the rubble, the statement said, though there was no immediate word on how many had been killed or injured. Satellite imagery from Monday showed the word “children” written in large white letters in Russian in front of and behind the building, the Maxar space technology company said.

“Another horrendous war crime in Mariupol,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter, calling the bombing a “massive Russian attack.”

The Russian defense ministry denied bombing the theater or anywhere else in Mariupol on Wednesday.

In Kyiv, residents huddled in homes and shelters amid a citywide curfew that runs until Thursday morning, as Russian troops shelled areas in and around the city, including a residential neighborhood 1.5 miles from the presidential palace. A 12-story apartment building in central Kyiv erupted in flames after being hit by shrapnel.

And 10 people were killed while standing in line for bread in the northern city of Chernihiv, the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, went before the U.S. Congress via video and, invoking Pearl Harbor and 9/11, pleaded with America for more weapons and tougher sanctions against Russia, saying: “ We need you right now.”

U.S. President Joe Biden announced the U.S. is sending an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine, including more anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons and drones. He also called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” in his sharpest condemnation of the Russian leader since the invasion began.

International pressure against the Kremlin mounted and its isolation deepened as the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, ordered Russia to stop attacking Ukraine, though there was little hope it would comply. Also, the 47-nation Council of Europe, the continent’s foremost human rights body, expelled Russia.

While Moscow’s ground advance on the Ukrainian capital appeared largely stalled, Putin said the operation was unfolding “successfully, in strict accordance with preapproved plans.” He also decried Western sanctions against Moscow, accusing the West of trying to “squeeze us, to put pressure on us, to turn us into a weak, dependent country.”

A senior U.S. defense official said the Russians were still making little tangible progress in much of the country, but have begun shelling the suburbs of Odesa, Ukraine’s third-largest city and a major naval and shipping hub. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. military assessments, said Russia’s aims weren’t clear, but Western officials have long worried about a ground assault on the coastal city.

The two sides were scheduled to speak again Wednesday, but details of the talks or whether they took place weren’t immediately forthcoming. After Tuesday’s negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by the two sides, while Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands for ending the war were becoming “more realistic.”

Hopes for diplomatic progress to end the war rose after Zelenskyy acknowledged Tuesday in the most explicit terms yet that Ukraine is unlikely to realize its goal of joining NATO. Putin has long depicted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia.

Lavrov welcomed Zelenskyy’s comment and said “the businesslike spirit” starting to surface in the talks “gives hope that we can agree on this issue.”

“A neutral status is being seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Lavrov said on Russian TV. “There are concrete formulations that in my view are close to being agreed.”

Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said the sides were discussing a possible compromise for a Ukraine with a smaller, nonaligned military.

Prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough were highly uncertain, however, given the gulf between Ukraine’s demand that the invading forces withdraw completely and Russia’s suspected aim of replacing Kyiv’s Westward-looking government with a pro-Moscow regime.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak denied Russian claims that Ukraine was open to adopting a model of neutrality comparable to Sweden or Austria. Podolyak said Ukraine needs powerful allies and “clearly defined security guarantees” to keep it safe.

Another source of dispute is the status of Crimea, which was seized and annexed by Russia in 2014, and the separatist-held Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which Russia recognizes as independent. Ukraine considers both part of its territory.

The fighting has sent more than 3 million people fleeing Ukraine, by the United Nations’ estimate. The U.N. has been able to confirm only 700 civilian deaths, though the actual total is far higher.

In going before Congress, Zelenskyy said that Russia “has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.” But Biden has rejected Zelenskyy’s requests to send warplanes to Ukraine or establish a no-fly zone over the country because of the risk of triggering war between the U.S. and Russia.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, arrived in Ukraine to try to obtain greater access for aid groups and increased protection for civilians.

Amid the vast humanitarian crisis caused by the war, the Red Cross has helped evacuate civilians from besieged areas and has delivered 200 tons of aid, including medical supplies, blankets, water and over 5,200 body bags to help “ensure the dead are treated in a dignified manner.”

Nowhere has suffered more than the encircled city of Mariupol, where local officials say missile strikes and shelling have killed more than 2,300 people. The southern seaport of 430,000 has been under attack for almost all of the three-week war in a siege that has left people struggling for food, water, heat and medicine.

Local authorities said Russian forces took hundreds of people hostage at a Mariupol hospital and were using them as human shields.

Bodies have been buried in trenches in Mariupol, and more corpses lay in the streets and in a hospital basement.

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