Ukrainian servicemen ride on top of an armored personnel carrier speeding down a deserted boulevard during an air raid alarm, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
LVIV, Ukraine, March 11 (Reuters) – Russian forces bearing down on Kyiv are regrouping northwest of the Ukrainian capital, satellite pictures showed, in what Britain said could be preparation for an assault on the city within days.
Ukraine accused Russian forces of hitting a psychiatric hospital near its eastern town of Izyum on Friday, in what the regional governor called “a brutal attack on civilians”. Emergency services said no one was hurt as the patients were already sheltering in the basement.
Reuters could not immediately verify the report and there was no immediate comment from Moscow.
Russia has been pounding Ukraine’s cities while its main attack force north of Kyiv has been stalled on roads since the invasion’s early days, having failed in what Western countries say was an initial plan for a lightning assault on the capital.
Images released by private U.S. satellite firm Maxar showed armoured units manoeuvring in and through towns close to an airport on Kyiv’s northwest outskirts, site of intense fighting since Russia landed paratroops there in the first hours of the war.
Other elements had repositioned near the small settlement of Lubyanka just to the north, with towed artillery howitzers in firing positions, Maxar said.
“Russia is likely seeking to reset and re-posture its forces for renewed offensive activity in the coming days,” Britain’s Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence update. “This will probably include operations against the capital Kyiv.”
The British update said Russian ground forces were still making only limited progress, hampered by persistent logistical issues and Ukrainian resistance.
Ukraine said Russian forces were regrouping after taking heavy losses. In its overnight statement on the battlefield situation, the Ukrainian general staff also said its forces had pushed Russians back to “unfavourable positions” in the Polyskiy district, an area near the Belarus border to the rear of the main Russian column heading towards Kyiv.
Oleh Synegubov, governor of the Kharkiv region, said 330 people had been at the psychiatric hospital when it was hit: “This is a war crime against civilians, genocide against the Ukrainian nation,” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
The reported strike came less than two days after Russia bombed a maternity hospital in the besieged southern port of Mariupol, an attack Washington has called a war crime. Ukraine said pregnant women were among those hurt there; Russia said the hospital was no longer functioning and was occupied by Ukrainian fighters when it was hit.
For a seventh straight day, Russia announced plans to cease fire to let civilians leave Mariupol, site of Ukraine’s worst humanitarian emergency, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped with no food, water, heat or power. All previous attempts to reach the city have failed with both sides accusing each other of failing to observe ceasefires.
Ukraine said it would try yet again to help people leave: “We hope it will work today,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
Moscow denies it has been targeting civilians in what it calls a “special operation” to disarm and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
PUTIN SEES ‘POSITIVE SHIFTS’
President Vladimir Putin has tried to project an air of calm in regular engagements since ordering the invasion on Feb. 24. In the latest, a meeting with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, Putin said there were “certain positive shifts” in talks with Ukrainians. He gave no further details.
Earlier, at a meeting of his security council, Putin approved a proposal to recruit 16,000 fighters from the Middle East.
“If you see that there are these people who want of their own accord – not for money – to come to help the people living in Donbass, then we need to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone,” Putin said.
The Kremlin threatened to shut down Facebook owner Meta Platforms FB.O in Russia on Friday, following a Reuters report that the company had issued guidelines temporarily easing a ban on calls for political violence to allow some Facebook or Instagram posts that encourage killing invading Russian troops.
According to internal emails sent to content moderators, the guidelines would even allow posts that call for the death of Putin or Lukashenko.
“We don’t want to believe the Reuters report – it is just too difficult to believe,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We hope it is not true because if it is true then it will mean that there will have to be the most decisive measures to end the activities of this company.”
European Union leaders were holding a summit at France’s Versailles Palace, expected to be dominated by calls for more action to punish Russia, assist Ukraine and cope with an influx of nearly 2.5 million refugees in just two weeks.
In the two weeks since the invasion, Western countries have swiftly moved to isolate Russia from world trade and the global financial system to an extent never before visited on such a large economy.
In the latest move, sources said U.S. President Joe Biden will ask the Group of Seven industrialised countries and the EU to strip Russia of normal trade rights, known as “most favoured nation status”. That would allow hitting Russian goods with new tariffs.
While Russia’s advance on Kyiv has been stalled and it has failed so far to capture any cities in northern or eastern Ukraine, it has made more substantial progress in the south. Moscow said on Friday its separatist allies in the southeast had captured the town of Volnovakha north of Mariupol.
On Friday, three air strikes in the central city of Dnipro killed at least one person, state emergency services said, adding that the strikes were near a kindergarten.
Ihor Polishshuk, the mayor of the city of Lutsk, said four pepole were killed and six wounded in an attack on an airfield there, a rare strike on a target deep in western Ukraine and far from the battlefields in the north, east and south.
Within Russia, the authorities have banned any reports that refer to the “special operation” as a war or invasion. Most of the remaining independent media outlets were shut last week. Thousands of people have been arrested for holding mostly small anti-war demonstrations. The main opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, issued a call from jail for mass protests on Sunday.