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Heavy fighting in Kiev as US offers to evacuate President Zelensky

Smoke and flames rise over during the shelling near Kyiv, as Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine February 26, 2022. (Photo by Reuters)

Russian and Ukrainian forces are clashing in the Ukrainian capital, with a US official confirming that Washington has offered to evacuate President Volodymyr Zelensky from Kiev. 

This is the third day of the conflict, with clashes having already reached the streets of Kiev, but French President Emmanuel Macron warned on Saturday that the world must brace for a long war.

"This crisis will last, this war will last and all the crises that come with it will have lasting consequences," Macron said at an agriculture fair in France. "We must be prepared".

Zelensky said he had spoken by phone with Macron and that Western "partners" were sending weapons to fight Russian troops.

"Weapons and equipment from our partners are on the way to Ukraine. The anti-war coalition is working!" the comedian-turned-politician tweeted.  

Zelensky was quoted as having told the US government that he needed anti-tank ammunition, “not a ride”, after he was offered a safe evacuation from Kiev.

Local media reports said “heavy, frequent artillery fire” was heard near government buildings in Kiev in the early hours of Saturday. Interfax Ukraine agency said Russian forces were trying to capture one of the capital city's electricity generating stations.

The Ukrainian president's pledge to fight on came after the Kremlin accepted his offer to hold talks. His whereabouts were being kept secret. 

"We will not put down weapons, we will defend our state," he said, speaking in a video message from outside his Kiev office.

Zelenskiy's defiant remarks also came after his spokesman said Ukraine and Russia would consult in coming hours on a time and place for talks.

The Kremlin said it offered to meet in the Belarusian capital Minsk after Ukraine had expressed a willingness to discuss declaring itself a neutral country while Ukraine had proposed Warsaw as the venue.

On Friday, Zelensky had lamented that he had been "left alone" by the West. "Who is ready to fight alongside us? I don't see anyone. Who is ready to give Ukraine a guarantee of NATO membership? Everyone is afraid,” he said in a post-midnight video address.

Kiev officials were warning residents early Saturday that street fighting was underway and urged people to seek shelter. 

At least 198 Ukrainians, including three children, have been killed so far, the head of the Ukrainian health ministry was quoted as saying. 

He said 1,115 people were wounded, including 33 children. It was unclear whether he was referring only to civilian casualties. 

With Zelensky remaining defiant, the Russian military continued its advance, laying claim to Melitopol, a city of about 150,000 people in southeast Ukraine. 

Earlier, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces fired cruise missiles from the Black Sea at Mariupol as well as Sumy in the northeast and Poltava in the east.

Russia's defense ministry said their forces used air- and ship-based cruise missiles to carry out overnight strikes on military targets in Ukraine. It said Russian troops had hit hundreds of military infrastructure targets and destroyed several aircraft and dozens of tanks and armored and artillery vehicles.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday announced the launch of an operation to eliminate what he called a serious threat to his country, citing the need to "denazify" Ukraine and accusing its Western-backed leadership of genocide against Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.

Western countries have announced a barrage of sanctions on Russia, including blacklisting its banks and banning technology exports. But they have stopped short of forcing it out of the SWIFT system for international bank payments, fearing it would harm their own economies.

Energy prices rising in Europe

The military conflict is also leaving its impact on energy prices in Europe, raising concerns about gas supplies next winter.  

Wholesale gas and power prices spiked this week after Germany stopped certification for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was supposed to pump Russian has to Europe. Germany did so to punish Russia over the Ukraine conflict. 

And on Thursday, gas prices increased by 60 percent. Before that, gas and power prices already reached record highs this winter due to several issues including low gas inventories.

High power prices were a major factor behind soaring inflation in Europe. Now, things are expected to become more difficult in the months to come, especially next winter, in case Russian gas flows are interrupted. Currently, Russia supplies around 40 percent of Europe's gas.

Medvedev: No need for diplomatic ties with West

Former president and top security official Dmitry Medvedev said Russia doesn't really need diplomatic ties with the West.

Medvedev, writing on social media Saturday, said it was time to "padlock the embassies". He said Moscow would continue its operation in Ukraine until it achieved goals defined by Putin.

At the United Nations, Russia vetoed a draft Security Council resolution deploring its operation.

The White House asked Congress for $6.4 billion in security package, officials said, and Biden instructed the US State Department to release $350 million in military aid.

Biden: NATO to maintain 'open door' to Sweden, Finland

US President Joe Biden, in a statement on Friday, raised the ante in the showdown over Ukraine when he said NATO will maintain "its Open Door" to Finland and Sweden. 

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned Sweden and Finland of “military and political consequences” if either tried to join NATO.

“Finland and Sweden should not base their security on damaging the security of other countries and their accession to NATO can have detrimental consequences and face some military and political consequences,” she said.

While five of the eight Arctic nations — the US, Canada, Iceland, Greenland (through Denmark) and Norway — are NATO members, Sweden and Finland have so far remained outside the alliance.

Finland and Sweden have given significant military support to Ukraine since Russia started its military operation on Thursday.

NATO triggers rapid response force  

On Friday, NATO triggered its rapid response force for the first time to "defend the eastern flank" of the alliance, as Russian forces pushed deeper into Ukraine.

"We are deploying elements of the NATO Response Force on land, at sea and in the air, to further strengthen our posture and to respond quickly to any contingency,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

"There must be no space for miscalculation or misunderstanding. We will do what it takes to protect and defend every ally and every inch of NATO territory." 

Several NATO members have beefed up their presence in eastern Europe in recent days, with troops, fighter jets and warships on high alert across the region.

France to send 500 troops to Romania

France on Friday announced plans for the deployment of 500 military personnel as part of NATO forces to Romania.

"NATO has decided to reinforce its presence to send a very clear sign of strategic solidarity, to position forces in Romania," France’s army chief of staff, Thierry Burkhard, said. "We will send around 500 men with armored vehicles.”

The senior French military official said France would also maintain a military presence in Estonia, which borders Russia, beyond March.

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