Refugee count tops 1 million; Russians besiege Ukraine ports

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The number of people sent fleeing Ukraine by Russia’s invasion topped 1 million on Wednesday, the swiftest refugee exodus this century, the United Nations said, as Russian forces kept up their bombardment of the country’s second-biggest city, Kharkiv, and laid siege to two strategic seaports.

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The number of people sent fleeing Ukraine by Russia’s invasion topped 1 million on Wednesday, the swiftest refugee exodus this century, the United Nations said, as Russian forces kept up their bombardment of the country’s second-biggest city, Kharkiv, and laid siege to two strategic seaports.

The tally from the U.N. refugee agency released to The Associated Press amounts to more than 2 percent of Ukraine’s population being forced out of the country in less than a week. The mass evacuation could be seen in Kharkiv, where residents desperate to get away from falling shells and bombs crowded the city’s train station and tried to press onto trains, not always knowing where they were headed.

In a videotaped address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on Ukrainians to keep up the resistance. He vowed that the invaders would have “not one quiet moment” and described Russian soldiers as “confused children who have been used.”

An armed man stands at the Independent Square (Maidan) in the center of Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Ukraine’s leader decried Russia’s escalation of attacks on crowded cities as a blatant terror campaign, while President Joe Biden warned that if the Russian leader didn’t “pay a price” for the invasion, the aggression wouldn’t stop with one country. (Efrem Lukatsky / The Associated Press)

Moscow’s isolation deepened, meanwhile, when most of the world lined up against it at the United Nations to demand it withdraw from Ukraine. And the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible war crimes.

With fighting going on on multiple fronts across the country, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Mariupol, a large city on the Azov Sea, was encircled by Russian forces, while the status of another vital port, Kherson, a Black Sea shipbuilding city of 280,000, remained unclear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces claimed to have taken complete control of Kherson, which would make it the biggest city to fall yet in the invasion. But a senior U.S. defense official disputed that.

A woman cries in the small basement of a house crowded with people seeking shelter from Russian airstrikes, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Russia renewed its assault on Ukraine’s second-largest city in a pounding that lit up the skyline with balls of fire over populated areas, even as both sides said they were ready to resume talks aimed at stopping the new devastating war in Europe. (Vadim Ghirda / The Associated Press)

“Our view is that Kherson is very much a contested city,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Local militiaman Valery, 37, carries a child as he helps a fleeing family across a bridge destroyed by artillery, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2. 2022. Russian forces have escalated their attacks on crowded cities in what Ukraine’s leader called a blatant campaign of terror. (Emilio Morenatti / The Associated Press)

Zelenskyy’s office told The Associated Press that it could not comment on the situation in Kherson while the fighting was still going on.

But the mayor of Kherson, Igor Kolykhaev, said Russian soldiers were in the city and came to the city administration building. He said he asked them not to shoot civilians and to allow crews to gather up the bodies from the streets.

“I simply asked them not to shoot at people,” he said in a statement. “We don’t have any Ukrainian forces in the city, only civilians and people here who want to LIVE.”

A woman is overwhelmed by emotion in the backyard of a house damaged by a Russian airstrike, according to locals, in Gorenka, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Russia renewed its assault on Ukraine’s second-largest city in a pounding that lit up the skyline with balls of fire over populated areas, even as both sides said they were ready to resume talks aimed at stopping the new devastating war in Europe.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said the attacks there had been relentless.

“We cannot even take the wounded from the streets, from houses and apartments today, since the shelling does not stop,” he was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

Russia reported its military casualties for the first time since the invasion began last week, saying nearly 500 of its troops have been killed and almost 1,600 wounded. Ukraine did not disclose its own military losses but said more than 2,000 civilians have died, a claim that could not be independently verified.

Police detain a demonstrator during an action against Russia’s attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine resumed on Wednesday, with people taking to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg and other Russian towns despite mass arrests. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

In a video address to the nation early Thursday, Zelenskyy praised his country’s resistance.

“We are a people who in a week have destroyed the plans of the enemy,” he said. “They will have no peace here. They will have no food. They will have here not one quiet moment.”

He said the fighting is taking a toll on the morale of Russian soldiers, who “go into grocery stores and try to find something to eat.”

A Czech medical team evacuates Ukrainian child patient Yaroslava Zun, 9, who they picked up from Lviv, at the border crossing in Korczowa, Poland on Wednesday, March 2, 2022, from where she will be transported to Czech city of Pardubice. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

“These are not warriors of a superpower,” he said. “These are confused children who have been used.”

Meanwhile, the senior U.S. defense official said an immense column of hundreds of tanks and other vehicles appeared to be stalled roughly 25 kilometers (16 miles) from Kyiv and had made no real progress in the last couple of days.

The convoy, which earlier in the week had seemed poised to launch an assault on the capital, has been plagued with fuel and food shortages and has faced fierce Ukrainian resistance, the official said.

A woman cries outside houses damaged by a Russian airstrike, according to locals, in Gorenka, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Russia renewed its assault on Ukraine’s second-largest city in a pounding that lit up the skyline with balls of fire over populated areas, even as both sides said they were ready to resume talks aimed at stopping the new devastating war in Europe. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

On the far edges of Kyiv, volunteer fighters well into their 60s manned a checkpoint to try to block the Russian advance.

“In my old age, I had to take up arms,” said Andrey Goncharuk, 68. He said the fighters needed more weapons, but “we’ll kill the enemy and take their weapons.”

Around Ukraine, others crowded into train stations, carrying children wrapped in blankets and dragging wheeled suitcases into new lives as refugees. Shabia Mantoo, a spokesperson for the refugee agency known as UNHCR, said Wednesday that “at this rate” the exodus from Ukraine could make it the source of “the biggest refugee crisis this century.”

A man carries combat gear as he leaves Poland to fight in Ukraine, at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

A large explosion shook central Kyiv on Wednesday night in what the president’s office said was a missile strike near the capital city’s southern railway station. There was no immediate word on any deaths or injuries. Thousands of Ukrainians have been fleeing the city through the sprawling railway complex.

Russian forces pounded Kharkiv, Ukraine’s biggest city after Kyiv, with about 1.5 million people, in another round of aerial attacks that shattered buildings and lit up the skyline with flames. At least 21 people were killed and 112 injured over the past day, said Oleg Sinehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional administration.

Several Russian planes were shot down over Kharkiv, according to Oleksiy Arestovich, a top adviser to Zelenskyy.

Andrey Goncharuk, 68, a member of territorial defense wipes his face in the backyard of a house that was damaged by a Russian airstrike, according to locals, in Gorenka, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Russia renewed its assault on Ukraine’s second-largest city in a pounding that lit up the skyline with balls of fire over populated areas, even as both sides said they were ready to resume talks aimed at stopping the new devastating war in Europe. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

“Kharkiv today is the Stalingrad of the 21st century,” Arestovich said, invoking what is considered one of the most heroic episodes in Russian history, the five-month defense of the city from the Nazis during World War II.

From his basement bunker, Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov told the BBC: “The city is united and we shall stand fast.”

Russian attacks, many with missiles, blew the roof off Kharkiv’s five-story regional police building and set the top floor on fire, and also hit the intelligence headquarters and a university building, according to officials and videos and photos released by Ukraine’s State Emergency Service. Officials said residential buildings were also hit, but gave no details.

People gather in the Kyiv subway, using it as a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Russian forces have escalated their attacks on crowded cities in what Ukraine’s leader called a blatant campaign of terror. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency warned that the fighting poses a danger to Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors.

Rafael Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency noted that the war is “the first time a military conflict is happening amid the facilities of a large, established nuclear power program,” and he said he is “gravely concerned.”

Russia already has seized control of the decommissioned Chernobyl power plant, the scene in 1986 of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

In New York, the U.N. General Assembly voted to demand that Russia stop its offensive and immediately withdraw all troops, with world powers and tiny island states alike condemning Moscow. The vote was 141 to 5, with 35 abstentions.

Assembly resolutions aren’t legally binding but can reflect and influence world opinion.

The vote came after the 193-member assembly convened its first emergency session since 1997. The only countries to vote with Russia were Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea. Cuba spoke in Moscow’s defense but ultimately abstained.

Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said Russian forces “have come to the Ukrainian soil, not only to kill some of us … they have come to deprive Ukraine of the very right to exist.” He added: ”The crimes are so barbaric that it is difficult to comprehend.”

Russia ramped up its rhetoric. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded the world about the country’s vast nuclear arsenal when he said in an interview with Al-Jazeera that “a third world war could only be nuclear.”

In the northern city of Chernihiv, two cruise missiles hit a hospital, according to the Ukrainian UNIAN news agency, which quoted the health administration chief, Serhiy Pivovar, as saying authorities were working to determine the casualty toll.

In other developments:

— A second round of talks aimed at ending the fighting was expected Thursday, but there appeared to be little common ground between the two sides.

— The price of oil continued to soar, reaching $112 per barrel, the highest since 2014.

— Russia found itself even more isolated economically as Airbus and Boeing said they would cut off spare parts and technical support to the country’s airlines, a major blow. Airbus and Boeing jets account for the vast majority or Russia’s passenger fleet.

___

Isachenkov and Litvinova reported from Moscow; Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Edith M. Lederer and Jennifer Peltz at the United Nations; Mstyslav Chernov in Mariupol, Ukraine; Sergei Grits in Odesa, Ukraine; Robert Burns and Eric Tucker in Washington; Francesca Ebel, Josef Federman and Andrew Drake in Kyiv; and other AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.

‘A blitzkrieg’: Ukraine’s volunteer fighters brace for more

By Francesca Ebel

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Andrey Gonchruk served alongside Russian soldiers when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and called them brothers. But on Wednesday, the 68-year-old wiped his face with one hand and grasped a rifle with another, ready to resist their invasion of his country.

“This is a blitzkrieg,” Gonchruk said. He stood in the rubble of a home newly shattered by what residents called a Russian airstrike in Gorenka, a village on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital that has found itself in the crossfire as Moscow attempts to take Kyiv.

The white-bearded retiree is one of tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have volunteered to defend their homeland from Russia. He and his son, Kostya, armed themselves after last week’s invasion. Together, they patrol the village.

Among those patrolling was Pjotr Vyerko, 81, a French teacher who lost his wife, Lidya, to skin cancer from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Vyerko said he’s prepared to use his rifle to shoot invaders because he has a daughter and grandson. But he’s also considered what he’d do without his firearm.

“If they come here, I’ll jab them with a pitchfork if I don’t have weapons — but I do have weapons,” he said.

The volunteer defenders also share the pain of loss. Residents said at least two people from Gorenka have been killed in Russia’s week-old offensive and a dozen wounded. Several homes were destroyed Wednesday. Women stood in the ruins and wept.

“There has been a lot of destruction,” Gonchruk said. “But the people here are holding on well.” Many men in the village have military experience, like him.

Ukraine’s army has distributed weapons to anyone who wishes to defend the country and has deployed thousands of reservists. Throughout Kyiv, civilians in jeans and winter coats, wearing yellow armbands, crouch behind stacks of tires at checkpoints or keep watch on street corners.

They are outnumbered, but “we will try to get (more) weapons” even if none are supplied, Gonchruk said. “We’ll do it ourselves. We’ll kill the enemy and take their weapons,” he added.

In his Soviet army days, Gonchruk saw the Russians as brothers in arms. Now, that has changed.

“Everyone who comes to our territory is an enemy. No one invited them here,” he said. “Perhaps there are good people among them, but it doesn’t matter for me. They have come to kill my people.”

Gonchruk is shocked by Moscow’s invasion. He had assumed that Russia would eventually take over the separatist territories in eastern Ukraine, but he never expected the full-scale offensive that has struck at the heart of cities like Kharkiv and sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing over borders.

Others head to bomb shelters, with growing anger at Russia. “We don’t need to be freed. Leave us alone!” said another Gorenka resident, Larissa Lipatova, who fled to a cellar amid Wednesday’s attack and huddled under a blanket amid containers of pickled tomatoes and jams.

With a veteran’s eye and despite the rubble at his feet, Gonchruk took grim pride in the apparent setbacks the Russians have faced in the week since their invasion as Ukrainians resist.

“They thought they could come here and, in a day or two, they would take Kyiv, but look how they’re doing so far!” he said.

Elsewhere on the outskirts of the capital, another volunteer defender helped people cross the remains of a destroyed bridge on their way into the city. With a gun slung across his chest, the man held the gloved hand of a small boy, who gave him a shy and glancing smile.

Others, one by one, inched across the river on an exposed pipe in falling snow. Locals said the bridge was destroyed to impede the Russian advance.

Some exhausted Kyiv residents celebrated even the smallest of victories. One, who gave only her first name, Roza, showed off her just-bought groceries. “There’s everything: bananas, butter, even a fresh croissant,” she said.

Like Gonchruk, she had decided to stay instead of flee, armed only with determination as the war that few could have imagined entered a second week.

“We’re running to the basement, trembling, and worrying, but we believe in victory,” she said.

History

Updated on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 8:57 AM CST: Adds video

Updated on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 12:55 PM CST: Updates with write-through, adds photo

Updated on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 1:05 PM CST: Changes headline

Updated on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 3:50 PM CST: Updated with new details.

Updated on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 6:40 PM CST: Writethru, new headline, fact box story.

Updated on Wednesday, March 2, 2022 8:40 PM CST: Updates number of refugees

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