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Heavy fighting near Kyiv as Russian troops appear to regroup for offensive in east

Putin’s forces readying ‘for new strikes on the Donbas’; Ukraine says ‘we are preparing for that’; humanitarian aid convoys attempt to reach besieged city of Mariupol

A soldier walks the amid the destruction caused after shelling of a shopping center last March 21 in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
A soldier walks the amid the destruction caused after shelling of a shopping center last March 21 in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Heavy fighting raged on the outskirts of Kyiv and other zones Thursday amid indications the Kremlin is using talk of de-escalation as cover while regrouping and resupplying its forces and redeploying them for a stepped-up offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an early morning video address that Ukraine is seeing “a buildup of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbas, and we are preparing for that.”

Meanwhile, a convoy of buses headed to Mariupol in another bid to evacuate people from the besieged port city after the Russian military agreed to a limited cease-fire in the area. And a new round of talks aimed at stopping the fighting was scheduled for Friday.

The Red Cross said its teams were headed for Mariupol with medical supplies and other relief and hoped to take civilians out of the beleaguered city. Tens of thousands have managed to get out in the past few weeks by way of humanitarian corridors, reducing the city’s population from a prewar 430,000 to an estimated 100,000 as of last week, but other efforts have been thwarted by continued Russian attacks.

At the same time, Russian forces shelled suburbs of Kyiv that Ukraine recently retook control of, a regional official said, two days after the Kremlin announced it would significantly scale back operations near both the capital and the northern city of Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.”

Britain’s Defense Ministry also reported “significant Russian shelling and missile strikes” around Chernihiv. The area’s governor, Viacheslav Chaus, said Russian troops were on the move but may not be withdrawing.

Refugees from Lviv, Ukraine, arrive at a Red Cross headquarters in Rome, on March 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Russia’s Defense Ministry also reported new strikes on Ukrainian fuel stores late Wednesday, and Ukrainian officials said there were artillery barrages in and around the northeastern city of Kharkiv over the past day.

Despite the fighting raging in those areas, the Russian military said it committed to a cease-fire along the route from Mariupol to the Ukraine-held city of Zaporizhzhia.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses would be sent to collect civilians who have suffered some of the worst privations of the war.

Food, water, and medical supplies have all run low during a weekslong blockade and bombardment of the city. Civilians who have managed to leave have typically done so using private cars, but the number of drivable vehicles left in the city has dwindled and fuel is low.

A convoy of volunteers carrying supplies for civilians stuck in Mariupol leaves Zaporizhzhya, on March 29, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Emre Caylak/AFP)

“It’s desperately important that this operation takes place,” the Red Cross said in a statement. “The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it.”

As the new evacuation attempt was announced, evidence emerged that a Red Cross warehouse in the city had been struck earlier this month amid intense Russian shelling.

In satellite pictures from Planet Labs PBC, holes can be seen in the roof, along with a painted red cross on a white background. The aid organization said no staff have been at the site since March 15.

Talks between Ukraine and Russia were set to resume Friday by video, according to the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia, six weeks into a bloody war that has seen thousands die and a staggering 4 million Ukrainians flee the country.

Security personnel stand guard as Ukrainian delegation cars leave the first Russia and Ukraine face-to-face talks in weeks at Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul, on March 29, 2022, to try and end the nearly five-week-old war which has killed an estimated 20,000 people. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

But there seemed little faith that the two sides would resolve the conflict any time soon, particularly after the Russian military’s attacks on places where it had offered to dial back.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said alliance intelligence indicates that Russia is not scaling back its military operations in Ukraine but is instead repositioning and redeploying forces to join attacks in the Donbas.

“Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” Stoltenberg said, adding that Russia “is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region.” At the same time, he said, pressure is being kept up on Kyiv and other cities, and “we can expect additional offensive actions bringing even more suffering.”

The Donbas is the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014. In the past few days, the Kremlin, in a seeming shift in its war aims, said that its “main goal” now is gaining control of the Donbas, which consists of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Mariupol.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses media representatives as he arrives ahead of an extraordinary NATO summit at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, on March 24, 2022. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

The top rebel leader in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, issued an order to set up a rival city government for Mariupol, according to Russian state news agencies, in a sign of Russian intent to hold and administer the city.

In the Kyiv suburbs, regional governor Oleksandr Palviuk said on social media that Russian forces shelled Irpin and Makariv, and that there were battles around Hostomel. Pavliuk said there were Ukrainian counterattacks and some Russian withdrawals around the suburb of Brovary to the east.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said: “Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units. Heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”

As Western officials search for clues about what Russia’s next move might be, a top British intelligence official said demoralized Russian soldiers in Ukraine are refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their equipment, and had accidentally shot down their own aircraft.

A wounded man talks to a soldier, left, after being evacuated from Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, March 30, 2022. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

In a speech in Australia, Jeremy Fleming said Russian President Vladimir Putin had apparently “massively misjudged” the invasion. Although Putin’s advisers appear to be too afraid to tell the truth, the “extent of these misjudgments must be crystal clear to the regime,” said Fleming, who heads the GCHQ electronic spy agency.

US intelligence officials have similarly concluded that Putin is being misinformed by advisers too scared to give honest evaluations.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the US is wrong and that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon possesses the real information about what is happening in the Kremlin.”

“They don’t understand President Putin, they don’t understand the mechanism of decision-making, they don’t understand the way we work,” Peskov said.

In this file photo taken on December 17, 2020, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov sits in front of a screen displaying Russian President Vladimir Putin addressing his annual press conference via a video link from the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, at the World Trade Centre’s congress center in Moscow. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP)

In other developments, Putin authorized drafting 134,500 new conscripts starting April 1. The draft is a routine event but comes amid concerns that some draftees could be deployed to Ukraine.

Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu have given assurances that conscripts will not take part in the war in Ukraine. Earlier this month, however, the Russian military admitted that a number of conscripts ended up in Ukraine and were captured there.

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