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Ukraine-Russia talks continue in Belarus amid 'reduced pace of offensive'

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
This handout photo released by Belarusian Belta news agency shows Ukrainian and Russian delegations starting talks in Belarus on Monday, February 28, 2022, with Ukraine's delegation including several high-ranking officials, but not the country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Talks between Ukrainian and Russian delegations in Belarus are underway after they began earlier on Monday, with Ukraine's delegation including several high-ranking officials, but not Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky himself.

The country demanded an “immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops” in the lead-up to the meeting.

The Ukrainian delegation arrived at the border with Belarus for talks with Russian representatives aimed at ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian forces, the Ukrainian presidency said on Monday.

It said the delegation includes Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak among other officials.

Ukraine's President Volobymyr Zelensky has reportedly asked the European Union for immediate accession under a new special procedure.

Russian troops 'reduced pace of offensive': Ukraine

The Ukrainian military claims that Russian forces have slowed the pace of their military operation in the country as the offensive entered its fifth day on Monday.

"The Russian occupiers have reduced the pace of the offensive, but are still trying to develop success in some areas," the general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces was cited as saying by media outlets.

"At the same time, all attempts by the Russian invaders to achieve the goal of the military operation failed," it added, insisting that “the enemy is demoralized and bears heavy losses."

The Ukrainian military accused Russia of launching a missile strike on residential buildings in the cities of Zhytomyr and Chernigiv in the country's northwest and north.

The claims come amid reports of Russian forces advancing towards Kiev and seizing control of a number of towns and cities along the way. Authorities in Moscow have fiercely denied claims made by Ukrainian and Western officials of civilian areas being targeted by the Russian military.

Russian President Putin announced on Thursday a “special military operation” in Ukraine’s Donbas region to “defend people” subjected to "genocide" by government forces, stressing that Moscow has “no plans to occupy Ukrainian territory.”

Europe, Canada shut airspace to Russian aircraft

European countries and Canada on Monday moved to close their airspace to Russian airplanes in an unprecedented move aimed at pressuring Moscow to end its military operation in Ukraine.

The announcement on Sunday by long-time US allies came as Washington is yet to make a final decision on shutting its airspace to Russian airliners but is expected to follow suit, Western media cited unnamed American officials as saying.

The White House National Security Council has refused to comment on whether the US will close its skies to Russian planes, referring questions to the US Federal Aviation Administration, which has so far reserved its comments on the matter.

Germany, Spain and France joined Britain, the Nordics and Baltic states in declaring ban on Russian use of their airspace, a pressure tactic used mostly by member states of the US-led NATO military alliance against countries that refuse to fall in line.

The latest move by US allies comes in response to Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, which has prompted the Western countries to declare unprecedented sanctions against Moscow.

Moscow has already responded to the European airspace blockade with its own retaliatory measures, barring airlines from Britain, Bulgaria and Poland from flying over its skies.

Russia’s Aeroflot Airlines has suspended all flights to Europe. Russia's flagship carrier also announced on Sunday that it was suspending flights to Europe after the European Union closed its airspace to Russian airliners.

"Aeroflot is suspending flights of the European route network from February 28, 2022 until further notice," the company said in a statement posted on its website.

The announcement came after the EU announced earlier in the day that it would close its airspace to Russian carriers, adding to a litany of Western sanctions imposed on Russia.

The EU's airspace ban prohibits flights into or over the EU by all Russian planes, including private jets.

In response, Russia has barred flights from a number of countries such as Britain, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Poland and the Czech Republic.

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