Street fighting has broken out in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, as Russian forces advanced on the city and Ukrainian officials urged residents to take shelter.
As dawn broke in Kyiv on Saturday, it was not immediately clear how far the soldiers had advanced. Ukrainian officials reported success in fending off assaults, but fighting persisted near the capital. Skirmishes reported on the edge of the city of nearly three million people suggested that small Russian units were probing Ukrainian defences to clear a path for the main forces.
Saturday marked the third day of a massive land, sea and air invasion ordered by President Vladimir Putin in what turned out to be Russia’s biggest military deployment since World War II and has resulted in hundreds of casualties.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy refused an American offer for him to evacuate, insisting that he would stay in Kyiv. “The fight is here,” he said on Saturday.
Zelenskyy renewed assurances that the country’s military would stand up to the Russian invasion and said that claims that the Ukrainian military would put down arms were false.
“We aren’t going to lay down weapons. We will protect the country,” he said. “Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that it’s our land, our country, our children. And we will defend all of that.”
Vitali Klitschko, Kyiv’s mayor, said on Saturday that Russian troops had so far been prevented from entering the city by Ukrainian forces that included military police, national guards and volunteers.
“Now subversive groups are acting in Kyiv, there were several clashes, firefights,” he said.
“As of 6am, 35 people were wounded, including two children. I ask everyone to keep calm, and stay in shelters. The enemy will attack from the air.”
The street clashes followed Russian strikes that pummelled bridges, schools and apartment buildings.
A missile that struck a residential building in Kyiv on Saturday did not kill anyone, an adviser to the interior minister said. Anton Herashchenko also said Russia was lying about not shelling civilian infrastructure. According to the adviser, at least 40 such sites had been hit and Russian troops were shelling civilian sites.
“It was an extraordinarily awful night,” said Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from the capital. “Missiles just raining down on Kyiv, ballistic missiles shuddering the city and relentless bombardments by the air force of the Russian Federation.”
He said that there was fighting across the country, but in the capital “the force of the conflict has reached a seismic level”.
“The trauma, the pain is just so immeasurable, very hard to narrate what has been happening,” Simmons added.
He said many civilians sought refuge in underground shelters, as Kyiv officials urged residents to take shelter, to stay away from windows and to take precautions to avoid flying debris or bullets. Klitschko said that the city’s critical infrastructure and the metro were working and that checkpoints had been set up around Kyiv.
Zelenskyy has also urged Ukrainian citizens to defend the country and said that weapons would be given to everyone coming forward. Some 18,000 guns with ammunition have been distributed to reservists in the Kyiv region alone since Thursday, Ukrainian authorities said.
The defence ministry also told Kyiv residents to make petrol bombs to repel the Russian attacks.
“Wherever you go, whoever you speak to, there are stories of bravery of people committed to trying to repel an overwhelming force,” Simmons said.
“It’s very terrifying, but we are coping,” a young boy, sitting in a shelter underground next to his mother, told Al Jazeera. “I am sure in about a few days it should be fine, it should settle a little bit”.
It was unclear how many people overall had died in the largest ground war in Europe since World War II.
Ukrainian officials reported at least 137 deaths on their side from the first full day of fighting and later said that more than 3,500 Russian soldiers have been killed. Al Jazeera could not independently verify casualty figures.
Russian authorities released no casualty figures.
United Nations officials reported 25 civilian deaths, mostly from shelling and air strikes, and said that 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes. They estimate that up to five million could flee if the fighting escalates.
On Friday, the train station in the capital was packed with masses of people trying to find a way to leave the city.
Meanwhile, satellite images showed massive Russian reinforcements waiting in reserve across the border from Ukraine.