Street fighting in Ukraine as hundreds of thousands flee

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Street fighting raged in Ukraine’s second-biggest city on Sunday after Russian forces pierced through Ukrainian lines, as both sides said they were ready for talks to halt a conflict that has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

Machine gun fire and explosions could be heard in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine and an AFP journalist saw the wreckage of a Russian armoured vehicle smouldering and several others abandoned.

On the fourth day of an invasion by Russia that has sent shockwaves around the world, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky turned down Moscow’s offer of a meeting in Belarus, which has allowed Russian troops passage to attack Ukraine.

Zelensky said Ukraine had proposed Warsaw, Bratislava, Budapest, Istanbul and Baku as possible alternative locations for any talks.

“Any other city in a country from whose territory missiles do not fly would suit us,” Zelensky said.

“The past night in Ukraine was brutal,” he said. “They fight against everyone. They fight against all living things — against kindergartens, against residential buildings and even against ambulances.”

Ukraine has reported 198 civilian deaths, including three children, since the invasion began.

But President Vladimir Putin has pressed ahead with the assault, defying crippling Western sanctions that have plunged Russia into pariah status.

Many NATO members are sending arms and ammunition to Ukraine and have offered humanitarian assistance, but they have said they will not intervene militarily.

NATO has also said it will for the first time deploy part of its 40,000-strong rapid response force to Eastern Europe in a move to reassure rattled countries that were once part of the Communist bloc.

A day after Berlin said it would send anti-tank weapons and Stingerp missiles to Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the world was in a “new era” and warned of possible “further sanctions”.

In London, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the conflict could last a “number of years”.