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1 million flee Ukraine as Russian assault targets key cities, fuels exodus

For civilians in two key port cities in the south, there was little prospect of making it out.

In Kherson, which sits on the strategically important Dnieper River, Mayor Ihor Kolykhaev told NBC News on Thursday that “Russian troops have captured the city.”

He said he gave the Russian forces conditions, including that the Ukrainian flag must fly over the city council building. He also requested a humanitarian corridor, no tanks in the city, and increased bread production.

The head of the regional council, Hennadiy Lahuta, posted on Facebook that Russians “completely occupied the building of the Kherson Regional State Administration.”

Kolykhaev said late Wednesday there had been “armed visitors in the city council building” and that there were no Ukrainian forces in the city, only civilians.

Ukrainian officials had earlier disputed Russia’s claims that its forces were in full control of the city.

Russian shelling destroyed residential buildings and playgrounds, and residents reported a dwindling supply of food in the city.

“When they shell a lot, we sleep in our shoes, so we can run away if needed,” said Irina Khabaluk, 37, who was sheltering in her apartment with her husband and their two children.

“We stay in the apartment and basically pray that we won’t get hit directly.”  

Further along the coast, Mariupol, a large city on the Azov Sea, remained in Ukrainian hands but was encircled and blockaded by Russian forces, according to the city council.

In a post on Telegram, the council accused Russia of creating a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the city and hindering the supply of food. Under constant shelling, the city’s critical infrastructure had been hit and there was no heat, water or electricity, it said, while wounded women and children were prevented from leaving the city.

To the west, Russian forces also appeared to have the Black Sea port of Odessa in their sights as the Ukrainian military warned that four landing ships and three missile boats were headed in its direction.

“The hottest destination of the day is Odesa,” Ukraine’s top security official, Oleksiy Danilov, said on Facebook.

Though the Russian advance was making progress in Ukraine’s south, in the north it appeared bogged down.

Residential areas of several cities came under attack early Thursday, according to an update from the Ukrainian military posted on Facebook.

Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, and surrounding towns continued to face a barrage of heavy shelling. In the last 24 hours, 34 people died and 285 were injured in the region, including 10 children, the interior ministry said in a statement.

NBC News has not verified the numbers of any people killed.

Russia has consistently denied targeting civilians, despite a growing body of evidence. The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into Russia’s actions.

‘Nothing to lose but our own freedom’

The capital, from where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rallied global leaders and local civilians to the cause, remained the nucleus of Ukraine’s resistance.

Western officials and experts have said they believe Putin’s aim is to remove Zelenskyy and replace his Western-friendly government with a regime more amenable to the Kremlin, restoring the Kremlin’s influence over its neighbors three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

March 3, 202201:44

Putin’s forces appeared no closer to a direct assault on Kyiv on Thursday, but Ukraine’s military warned that Russian troops were “regrouping” for an attack on the capital after struggling to make a breakthrough.

Nearly 20 miles outside Kyiv, a mileslong convoy of tanks and armored vehicles stood largely in place, with both mechanical breakdowns and the Ukrainian defense delaying its advance, according to British military intelligence. “The column has made little discernible progress in over three days,” the country’s defense ministry said on Twitter.

“The enemy is trying to break through to the capital. But Ukrainian defenders hold the defense and stop the occupiers on the outskirts of the capital,” Mayor Vitali Klitschko said in an update on Telegram. 

Shells landed overnight on residential areas damaging homes and cars, but not causing any casualties, he said.

Zelenskyy sought to boost morale in a video posted to social media as the conflict entered its second week.

“We have nothing to lose but our own freedom,” he said in a post on Telegram. “For us, this is the greatest treasure.”

While he steeled his public for the fight ahead, Ukrainian negotiators traveled to Belarus by helicopter for a fresh round of talks, according to a tweet by Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podoliyak.