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A view of areas near the front line where Ukrainian forces have been battling Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine, on March 10, 2022.

A view of areas near the front line where Ukrainian forces have been battling Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine, on March 10, 2022. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

KYIV, Ukraine (Tribune News Service) — As Russian forces kept up their bombardment of cities across Ukraine on Saturday, capturing the eastern outskirts of a key southern port, the Kremlin warned the U.S. that it would consider convoys carrying weapons to Ukraine to be "legitimate targets."

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Saturday that shipments of Western weapons to Ukraine could be attacked by Russian forces, according to Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency. Western nations' "thoughtless transfer" of portable air defense and antitank missile systems to Kyiv, Ryabkov said, demonstrated "the escalatory component of Washington's policy."

The White House announced Saturday it approved an additional $200 million in arms and equipment for Ukraine, on top of $350 million President Joe Biden approved last month.

"We have warned the U.S. that the U.S.-orchestrated inundation of Ukraine with weapons from some countries is not just a dangerous move, but also an action that makes these convoys legitimate targets," Ryabkov said. The Russian diplomat did not say whether Russian forces would target such convoys in Poland or Romania, NATO countries that border Ukraine.

The tough talk came on a day that Russian forces sustained "heavy losses in manpower and equipment" in areas northeast of Kyiv and were prevented from regaining a foothold on previously captured frontiers, according to the Ukrainian military.

Early in the morning, loud explosions reverberated near the capital. Rumbles — louder and closer than the booms of previous days — could be heard throughout the day and well into the night in Kyiv. They served as the calling card of the twin Russian pincers stretching toward the capital from its northeastern and northwestern flank.

Despite holding off enemy forces from the capital, Ukrainian officials admitted a bitter defeat, acknowledging that Russia had seized part of Mariupol, a strategic city in the southeastern Donetsk region that could allow it to build a land corridor from pro-Moscow enclaves in the east to Russian-annexed Crimea in the south. Russian shelling of the city hit a mosque sheltering more than 80 people, including children, and repeated efforts to evacuate 430,000 residents have failed as their convoys come under artillery fire. Dozens of buses loaded with humanitarian supplies were reported to be attempting to reach the city.

"Let's see whether this one gets here or not," Mariupol Deputy Mayor Serhiy Orlov said in an interview with the BBC, noting that six previous attempts to bring food, water and medicine to his beleaguered city were unsuccessful.

"The convoys were not let through," he said. "They were bombed, the road was mined, there was shelling in the town."

In Mykolaiv, another major Black Sea port and shipbuilding center about 300 miles west of Mariupol, Mayor Olexandr Senkevitch claimed in a video posted Saturday on Instagram that eight civilians were injured and more than 160 houses, three hospitals and 11 educational institutions were damaged overnight.

"We will definitely repair and restore everything," he said. "We heal the wounded. And defeat these damn orcs."

As Russian forces assembled about 15 miles outside Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy struck a confident tone from inside the capital, where citizen militias are armed with missiles, machine guns and Molotov cocktails.

"We know 100% there will be a victory," he said in a news conference.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Zelenskyy said, about 1,300 soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine had died — a fraction of the 12,000 Russians that he claimed had died. The numbers could not be independently verified.

"One in 10," he said.

Asked if Russian troops could enter Kyiv, Zelenskyy said it was theoretically possible.

"If they carry out a carpet bombing and simply decide to erase the historical memory of the whole region, the history of Kyivan Rus', the history of Europe, they will enter Kyiv," he added. "If they destroy all of us, they will enter Kyiv. If this is the goal, they will enter and will have to live on this land alone, without us. They will not find friends among us here.

Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians to keep fighting.

"The resistance of the entire Ukrainian people against these invaders has already gone down in history," Zelenskyy said. "But we have no right to reduce the intensity of defense. No matter how difficult it is. We have no right to reduce the energy of resistance."

In Melitopol, a city 120 miles west of Mariupol that is now under Russian military occupation, hundreds gathered on the streets Saturday to demand the release of the southern city's mayor, Ivan Fedorov, whom the Ukrainian government has said was kidnapped from a government office Friday by Russian forces.

"Fedorov!" the crowd chanted. "Free the mayor!"

After accusing Russia on Saturday of "switching to a new stage of terror" in trying to "physically eliminate" elected officials, Zelenskyy praised the protesters for their open resistance.

"The invaders must see that they are strangers on our land, on all our land of Ukraine, and they will never be accepted," he said in a video broadcast.

In telephone conversations with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, Zelenskyy said he urged them to push for Fedorov's release.

"The demand is simple: to release him from captivity immediately," he said. "We expect them, the world leaders, to show how they can influence the situation. How they can do a simple thing: free one person. A person who represents the entire Melitopol community, Ukrainians who do not give up."

Russia's intensified assault on the cities and villages of Ukraine came as the United States continued to insist that diplomacy still had a role in the conflict.

But prospects of a resolution looked dim after Scholz and Macron unsuccessfully tried in a lengthy telephone call Saturday to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to an immediate cease-fire or diplomatic talks.

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency also reported Saturday that Ryabkov, Russia's deputy foreign minister, said in an interview that Moscow and Washington were not negotiating or consulting on Ukraine.

Meanwhile, there were signs that Russia sought to seize political control of captured Ukrainian cities.

On Saturday, a Ukrainian official in Kherson, a coastal region that was captured by Russians last month and is home to a string of vital ports on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, warned that Russian authorities were contacting deputies and asking for their cooperation in holding a referendum aimed at creating a breakaway republic.

"The creation of Kherson People's Republic will turn our region into a hopeless hole without life and future," Sergey Khlan wrote, a deputy in the Kherson Regional Council, in a post on Facebook on Saturday. "Do not give them a single vote!… Enter the history of Ukraine not as traitors whom nobody wants, but truly as citizens whose names will be remembered by the next generations."

In 2014, Russia conducted similar referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two eastern Ukrainian provinces where fighting between Moscow-backed separatists and the government flared eight years ago. After Russia aided the separatists in capturing territory, it held referendums that led to the creation of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics.


Bulos reported from Kyiv and Jarvie from Atlanta.

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