KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s relentless bombardment of Ukraine edged closer to central Kyiv as a series of strikes hit a residential neighborhood Tuesday, while the leaders of three European Union countries planned a bold visit to Ukraine’s capital and the number of people the war has driven from the country passed 3 million.
Shortly before dawn, large explosions thundered across Kyiv from what Ukrainian authorities said were artillery strikes. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said barrages hit four multi-story buildings in the city and caused dozens of deaths.
The strikes targeted a western district of Kyiv, disrupting a relative calm that returned after an initial advance by Russian forces was stopped in the early days of the war. Tuesday's shelling ignited a huge fire in a 15-story apartment building and spurred a frantic rescue effort.
As Russia stepped up its assault on Kyiv, the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia announced they would travel to Ukraine’s embattled capital Tuesday to show support for the country.
“The aim of the visit is to express the European Union’s unequivocal support for Ukraine and its freedom and independence,” Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said in a tweet.
He will be joined by Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is Poland’s deputy prime minister for security and the leader of the conservative ruling party.
Leaders of the 27-nation EU were “informed” of the trip, but did not sanction it, officials said. An EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the trip, said European Council President Charles Michel had “pointed at the security risks” of such an undertaking.
The International Organization for Migration said the number of people who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24 passed 3 million on Tuesday. The U.N. has described the flood of people crossing into Poland and other neighboring countries as Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
Russian and Ukrainian negotiators also planned to hold a second day of talks as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its 20th day. The Red Cross and the United Nations refugee agency say millions of people face food and medicine shortages along with the immediate conflict threats of shelling and air attacks.
The Ukrainian government said new aid and evacuation efforts would take place Tuesday along nine corridors around the country, including the Kyiv region. But past evacuation attempts have repeatedly failed amid continued fighting.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said an evacuation involving 30 buses was planned from Sumy in northeast Ukraine. The organization said it still had not gotten aid to Mariupol, an encircled port city of 430,000 where local officials estimate a lethal siege has killed more than 2,300 people and left residents desperate for food, water, heat and medicine.
Russia’s invasion has shocked the world, upended Europe’s post-Cold War security order and driven millions from their homes. Russia’s military is bigger and better equipped than Ukraine’s, but its troops have faced stiffer-than-expected resistance, bolstered by arms supplied by the West.
When Russia launched the war three weeks ago, fear of an imminent invasion gripped the Ukrainian capital, and residents slept in subway stations or crammed onto trains to flee. But as the Russian offensive bogged down, Kyiv saw a relative lull.
Fighting has intensified on the city’s outskirts in recent days, and sporadic air raid sirens ring out around the capital.
The early morning artillery strikes hit the Svyatoshynskyi district of western Kyiv, adjacent to the suburb of Irpin, which has seen some of the worst battles of the war.
Flames shot out of the 15-story apartment building and smoke choked the air as firefighters climbed ladders to rescue people. The assault blackened several floors of the building, ripped a hole in the ground outside and blew out windows in neighboring apartment blocks.
Rescue workers said one person died and several were rescued but others remained inside.
“Yesterday we extinguished one fire, today another, it is very difficult,” said one young firefighter as he took a brief break outside the building, tears falling from his eyes.
“People are dying, and the worst thing is that children are dying. They haven’t lived their lives and they have already seen this, this is the worst,” said the rescuer, who gave only his first name, Andriy.
Shockwaves from an explosion also damaged the entry to a downtown subway station that has been used as a bomb shelter. City authorities tweeted an image of the blown-out facade, saying trains would no longer stop at the station.
A 10-story apartment building in the Podilsky district of Kyiv, north of the government quarter, was damaged by unspecified ammunition. Russian forces also stepped up strikes overnight on Irpin and the northwest Kyiv suburbs of Hostomel and Bucha, said the head of the capital region, Oleksiy Kuleba.
“Many streets (in those areas) have been turned into a mush of steel and concrete. People have been hiding for weeks in basements, and are afraid to go out even for evacuations,” Kuleba said on Ukrainian television.
In the country's east, Russian forces launched more than 60 strikes overnight on Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, according to regional administration chief Oleh Sinehubov. The strikes hit the city’s historical center, including the main marketplace.
“Fires are raging in the city, and there are not enough firefighters,” Sinehubov said.
Rescuers have pulled out “dozens of bodies of civilian residents,” from the ruins of destroyed apartment buildings, he said on Ukrainian television.
Zelenskyy is seeking to extend martial law until April 24 and to require men ages 18 to 60 to stay in the country to fight. Zelenskyy submitted the extension in a bill to parliament, which is expected to vote on it this week.
Talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators were due to resume Tuesday, after failing to make a break through — or to break down — on Monday. The two sides had expressed some optimism about the negotiations, which Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said would discuss “peace, ceasefire, immediate withdrawal of troops & security guarantees.”
U.S. officials said Russian troops made little progress on the ground in recent days and were still about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the center of Kyiv as of Monday. The Pentagon said Russian forces have launched more than 900 missiles but not taken control of the air above Ukraine.
U.S. administration officials alleged that Russia had asked China for help, and Beijing had signaled to Moscow that it would be willing to provide both military support and financial backing to help stave off effects of Western sanctions.
The Kremlin denied asking China for military equipment to use in Ukraine, and China denied helping Moscow.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Beijing’s stance was “completely objective, impartial and constructive,” and aimed at ending the conflict.
With each day, the human cost of the grinding war continues to rise. The Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office released details of two deadly Russian attacks that took place Monday: an artillery strike that hit a university and open-air market in the northern city of Chernihiv, killing 10, and the shooting of a 65-year-old woman on a bus that was evacuating civilians from a Kyiv suburb.
A Russian airstrike near a Ukrainian checkpoint caused extensive damage to a downtown Kyiv neighborhood, killing one person, Ukraine’s emergency agency said.
The number of people killed in a Russian rocket attack on a TV tower in western Ukraine on Monday rose to 19, authorities in the Rivne region said Tuesday. A further nine people were injured in the strike on the TV tower in Antopol, a village about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the border of NATO member Poland.
Meanwhile, the Russian military said 20 civilians in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine were killed by a ballistic missile launched by Ukrainian forces. The claim could not be independently verified.
In Russia, the live main evening news program on state television was briefly interrupted by a woman who walked into the studio holding a poster against the war. The OVD-Info website that monitors political arrests identified her as a Channel 1 employee and said she was taken into police custody.