Ukraine says its forces have retaken a key suburb west of the capital Kyiv from Russian control after weeks of fierce fighting, as negotiators from both sides met for the first peace talks in two weeks in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
Troops “liberated” the suburban town of Irpin, interior minister Denys Monastyrsky said late on Monday, as Ukrainian forces clung on to the eastern port city of Mariupol in the face of the Russian onslaught.
There was no confirmation from the Russian side.
AFP journalists witnessed continued heavy shelling in the area and met fleeing residents who described hellish scenes of bombs raining from the sky and people killed while trying to escape.
“We saw those cars which tried to get out on their own, they were crushed by tanks, with people inside,” said 55-year-old Roman Molchanov, his voice cracking.
His sister added that the “Russian orcs” had “shot dead people sitting in their cars”.
Thousands of people have left Irpin since Russia began shelling the town, which is home to about 60,000 people.
Multiple Ukrainian cities remained under Russian bombardment on the eve of new face-to-face peace negotiations on Tuesday in Turkey, as Kyiv and its allies in the West seek to end the month-long war that has forced more than 10 million from their homes. About 1,119 civilians have been killed in the fighting, according to UN figures.
Western experts described the loss of Irpin as a significant setback for Russian forces, who are still trying to regroup after a failed first attempt to encircle the capital.
It is now more than a month since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, hoping to cripple or remove the democratic government in Kyiv.
The prospects of a peaceful end to the war – or an imminent victory for either side – appear faint.
Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and Ukrainian peace negotiators suffered suspected poisoning earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter. The negotiators later recovered.
Sources blamed “hard-liners in Moscow who they said wanted to sabotage talks to end the war,” according to the WSJ report.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Monday that the Istanbul talks would focus on easing the humanitarian situation, and sounded a note of scepticism about the hopes for success.
“If we see that the mood has changed and they are ready for a serious, substantive conversation and balanced arrangements, then things will move forward,” he said.
“If it is a repetition of their propaganda” then, he said, talks will fail again.
Putin has demanded the imposition of neutral status and recognition of the Donbas and Crimea as being no longer part of Ukraine. He is no longer repeating earlier claims that Ukraine needs to be “denazified“.
Kuleba indicated there was little room for agreement there: “We do not trade people, land and sovereignty. Our position is concrete.”
On the battlefield, both sides appear determined to press where they can.
Ukrainian officials still believe Russia wants to take the capital Kyiv, dismissing suggestions the Kremlin is focused on the eastern Donbas region.
Capturing “Kyiv is essentially a captured Ukraine, and this is their goal”, said deputy defence minister Ganna Malyar, insisting Russia was still “trying to break through the corridor around Kyiv and block transport routes.”
On Monday, Russian attacks near Kyiv cut power to more than 80,000 homes, officials said, underscoring the continued peril facing the capital.
While Ukraine’s forces are counterattacking in the north, they are struggling to retain control of the southern port city of Mariupol.
Russian forces have encircled the city and embarked on a steady and indiscriminate bombardment, trapping an estimated 160,000 people with little food, water or medicine.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry called the situation “catastrophic”, saying Russia’s assault from land, sea and air had turned a city once home to 450,000 people “into dust”.
At least 5,000 people have already died, according to one senior Ukrainian official who estimated the real toll may be closer to 10,000 when all the bodies are accounted for.
“The burials stopped 10 days ago because of continued shelling,” Tetyana Lomakina, a presidential adviser now in charge of humanitarian corridors, told AFP by phone Monday.
France, Greece and Turkey are hoping to launch a mass evacuation of civilians from Mariupol within days, according to French President Emmanuel Macron, who is seeking agreement from Putin.
Western powers say they have seen evidence of war crimes, which are already being investigated by the International Criminal Court.
On Monday, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said there was proof that Russian forces have used banned cluster bombs in the southern Odesa and Kherson areas.