Fighting against Russian forces was continuing across Ukraine on Saturday but the capital and other strategically important cities remain under the control of the Ukrainian army, President Volodymry Zelensky said.
The Kremlin was pressing ahead for a third day on a mission to capture the centre of Kiev and “install their puppets here,” he said in an afternoon video update.
But fears of urban warfare in the capital have not yet come to pass even though the city was rocked by the sounds of gunfire and explosions over night.
Zelensky had earlier warned Ukrainians that Russian troops would likely “storm” the city during the night and called on people to “stop the enemy wherever possible.” As the sun rose over Kiev, Zelensky took to social media to refute reports suggesting he had fled the country and declared while strolling down a city street: “I’m still here.”
After the night of ground and air attacks in the Kiev area and elsewhere, he said Ukrainians would not lay down their weapons or surrender, as Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky, said the Russians were still trying to move a large number of troops and equipment into the city and that fighting was taking place in outlying areas.
But Ukrainian troops were mounting a strong defence and “both in the city itself and on the outskirts of Kiev, the situation is under control,” Podolyak said in comments carried by Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency.
Authorities told people in Kiev to hunker down in bomb shelters if they can and take precautions, like staying away from windows.
“Last night was difficult, but there are no Russian troops in the city,” Mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a video published on the Telegram news channel on Saturday morning.
But he added: “The enemy is trying to advance into the city.” Kiev’s infrastructure was still intact and underground trains were running.
The Ukrainian army meanwhile called on the population to help stop the Russian in every possible way.
“Cut down trees, build barricades, burn tyres! Use everything available!” the armed forces said in a statement quoted by the country’s UNIAN news agency.
Earlier, Ukraine’s foreign minister posted an image of smoke coming out of a Kiev high-rise that had at least four floors destroyed during fighting. It was not yet clear if there were casualties.
The Ukrainian army said it repelled an attack on a barracks in Kiev’s west, only about 7 kilometres from the city centre. Photos showed the site on fire while the sound of gunfire was audible on videos shared on social media.
Earlier in the night, there were reports that Russian troops tried to attack a combined heat and power plant in the far north-east of the city.
Both Russia and Ukraine released new figures on the war’s toll in terms of lives and infrastructure, although the information could not be independently verified.
Russia has crippled the operations of more than 800 Ukrainian military infrastructure sites, including airfields, command posts, anti-aircraft missile systems and radar stations, the Defence Ministry in Moscow said on Saturday, the third day of Russia’s offensive.
Moscow insists it is only going after military targets – despite allegations to the contrary from Kiev and witnesses on the ground – and says it is Ukrainian forces that are shelling residential areas in the eastern Donbass region.
Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said some 3,500 Russian soldiers had been killed and 200 others captured.
In addition, it said 14 planes, eight helicopters and 102 tanks as well as more than 530 other military vehicles were destroyed.
According to the Ukrainian government, at least 198 civilians have been killed and 1,115 people injured nationwide, including 33 children, after three days of attacks by Russian ground and air forces.
Among the dead were three children, Health Minister Viktor Liashko wrote on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians continued to try and escape the violence by crossing into neighbouring countries.
The Polish deputy interior minister said on Saturday some 100,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the country since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
Due to the long traffic jams on the Ukrainian side, Poland had decided to also open all border points for pedestrians, Pavel Szefernaker said.
A dpa reporter at the Medyka-Shegyni crossing reported that refugees, including many travelling by foot, were waiting for hours to be processed.
The United Nations said Friday that tens of thousands of people were fleeing to Ukraine’s neighbours and that, if the war escalated, the number could potentially reach 4 million or more.
On Saturday, the UN Refugee Agency put the number of all Ukrainian refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries at 100,000.
Outside of Kiev, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry said Russian air attacks struck the north-eastern city of Sumy, Mariupol in the south and Poltava in the east.
Russia said it captured the south-eastern Ukrainian town of Melitopol, near the Sea of Azov, and that Moscow-backed separatists had made territorial gains in the Donbass region.