Russian forces have intensified attacks on several key Ukrainian cities as Ukraine’s president accused Moscow of wanting to “erase our country”.
Ukrainian authorities denied Russia’s claim it had captured the Black Sea port of Kherson on Wednesday, the seventh day of its invasion of Ukraine, while Russian artillery massed outside the capital Kyiv, raising fears of an imminent assault.
Kherson’s Mayor Igor Nikolayev said the city remained under his control but was surrounded, and appealed on Facebook for permission to transport the dead and wounded out of the city and for food and medicine to be allowed in.
“Without all this, the city will die,” he wrote.
Several victims were reported killed by the shelling in southern and eastern Ukraine, adding to a civilian death toll of at least 350 people, including 14 children, according to Ukrainian authorities. Al Jazeera was not able to verify the death toll.
Russia has defied massive economic and diplomatic sanctions and growing global isolation to push on into Ukraine, where its forces have encountered stiff resistance.
Ukraine’s army said there was a fierce battle under way in Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine near the Russian border with a population of 1.4 million.
“There is an ongoing fight between the invaders and the Ukrainians,” the army said on the messaging app Telegram.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said “there is nowhere in Kharkiv where shells have not yet struck”.
After an air strike on Wednesday morning, the roof of a police building in central Kharkiv collapsed as it was engulfed in flames. Authorities said 21 people were killed by shelling and air strikes in the city in the past 24 hours, and four more on Wednesday morning.
Moscow denies targeting civilians and says it aims to disarm Ukraine, a country of 44 million people, in a “special military operation”.
In Kyiv, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that “the enemy is drawing up forces closer to the capital”.
“Kyiv is holding and will hold. We are going to fight,” the former champion boxer added.
Dozens of families could be seen sheltering on Wednesday in the Dorohozhychi metro station.
The United Nations said nearly 875,000 people have fled since the conflict began, including thousands of students and migrant workers from Africa and the Middle East who had been living in Ukraine.
‘Heavy casualties’ in Mariupol
The city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea was also reportedly encircled by Russian forces.
In an important strategic victory, Russian troops attacking from the Crimean Peninsula said they had linked up along the Azov Sea coast with pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, said there appeared to be a “pattern of Russian attacks aimed at depriving Ukraine of access to its Black Sea coast”.
“The Russians are said to be in control of Kherson and are also encircling Mariupol, a much bigger port city down on the Black Sea coast between Crimea and the breakaway regions,” he said, citing the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
At least one teenager died and two more were wounded by apparent Russian shelling on Mariupol, the Associated Press news agency reported.
The three boys were rushed to a regional hospital. One had lost his legs in the attack and died soon after arriving, according to an AP reporter at the scene.
Family members told the AP that the three had been playing soccer near a school when the shelling hit.
According to Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, “heavy casualties” were reported in the key port city.
“The mayor … is alleging that Russian forces are blocking the exit of civilians from the city,” Stratford said, reporting from Zaporizhzhia, a city in southeastern Ukraine.
“We know that there was a large tank column and a lot of Russian weapons moved into positions to the west of the city over the last couple of days,” he added.
With the international community piling pressure on Russia to halt the conflict, the Kremlin said a Russian delegation would be ready to meet Ukrainian officials at an undisclosed location on Wednesday.
A Ukrainian delegation member, David Arakhamia, said there would be talks but did not specify a place, date or time.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine would not hear Russian “ultimatums”.
Initial talks on Monday between Russia and Ukraine failed to yield any breakthroughs.
In a video address on Wednesday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces wanted to “erase our country, erase us all”.
Russia blasted Kyiv’s main television tower near a Holocaust memorial on Tuesday, killing bystanders.
The 44-year-old Zelenskyy, who is himself Jewish, urged Jewish people around the world to speak up.
“Nazism is born in silence. So, shout about killings of civilians. Shout about the murders of Ukrainians,” he said.