Little progress at talks as Russia bombards Ukrainian cities

Rescue workers searched for survivors in the rubble of a theatre in the besieged city of Mariupol which Ukraine said had been hit by a Russian air raid, as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine entered its fourth week.

Hundreds of civilians had been taking shelter in the grand, columned theatre in central Mariupol after their homes were destroyed in three weeks of fighting in the southern port city of 430,000. Russia denied bombing the building.

City authorities said they were still not able to estimate the number of possible casualties from the attack on the theatre.

“Yesterday and today, despite continuous shelling, rubble is being cleared as much as is possible and people are being rescued. Information about victims is still being clarified,” the city council said in a statement. It provided no figures on the numbers rescued.

Commercial satellite pictures showed the word “children” had been marked out on the ground in front of the building before it was hit.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the allegation that Russia had bombed the theatre was a “lie”.

“Russia’s armed forces don’t bomb towns and cities,” she told a briefing.

Local authorities said 350,000 people remain trapped in Mariupol, and that 30,000 had been evacuated in recent days.

No breakthrough at talks

Officials from both sides met again for talks but said their positions remained far apart as Western sources and Ukrainian officials said Russia’s assault had stalled.

The assault on Ukraine started with troops crossing the border or landing by sea and air on February 24.

But Western countries say its expectations of a swift victory and the removal of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government have been dashed and its invasion force has become bogged down.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian defence ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said Russian forces had made no significant advances around the capital, Kyiv, in the previous 24-48 hours and had resorted to “chaotic” shelling.

“The Ukrainian armed forces are making every effort to stop the enemy attacking from that area,” he told a press briefing in the capital on Thursday.

A man walks near a block of flats, which was destroyed during the Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 17, 2022 [Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

Meanwhile, in the second-largest city of Kharkiv, an air raid killed 21 people and destroyed a school and community centre in Merefa, near the northeast city of Kharkiv, officials said.

The United Nations human rights office in Geneva said it had recorded 2,032 civilian casualties so far – 780 killed and 1,252 injured.

Some 3.2 million civilians, mostly women and children, have now fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries, the United Nations said.

Talks ‘complicated’

A fourth straight day of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators took place by videolink, but the Kremlin said an agreement had yet to be reached.

“Our delegation is putting in colossal effort,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “Our delegation … is ready to work around the clock – but unfortunately, we don’t see such zeal from the Ukrainian side.”

Moscow has previously said it was close to agreeing a formula that would keep Ukraine neutral, one of its demands.

Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv
Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 17, 2022 [Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo]

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the negotiations were complicated.

“The positions of the parties are different. For us, fundamental issues are inviolable,” he said.

Ukraine has said it is willing to negotiate an end to the war but will not surrender or accept Russian ultimatums. It is sticking to its core position that it retain sovereignty over areas occupied since 2014 by Russian and pro-Russian forces.

Moscow says it is carrying out a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine.

The White House said United States President Joe Biden would hold a call on Friday with Chinese leader Xi Jinping as Washington tries to persuade Beijing not to provide support to Russia.

Ukraine’s Zelenskyy addressed the German Bundestag by video link, pulling no punches in a speech that invoked the Holocaust and the Berlin Wall, and seemed intended to shame pro-Russian politicians in Germany, Moscow’s main energy buyer.

“Every year politicians repeat ‘never again’,” said Zelenskyy, who is of Jewish heritage, citing a slogan used to mark the Holocaust.

“And now we see that these words are simply worthless.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed on Thursday targeting civilians was a “war crime”, while the G7 nations warned perpetrators would be “held responsible”.

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