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Hopes grow for peace talks as Ukraine decries civilian deaths

Top officials from Russia and Ukraine signalled the possibility of some progress on the third consecutive day of peace talks, as Kiev counted the civilian costs of Moscow's invasion.

Moscow, 16 March 2022 (dpa/MIA) – Top officials from Russia and Ukraine signalled the possibility of some progress on the third consecutive day of peace talks, as Kiev counted the civilian costs of Moscow’s invasion.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he saw “some hope” for reaching a compromise, just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced cautious optimism at his end.

Both countries were set to continue negotiations in an online format on Wednesday.

All the while, Russian attacks continued on various Ukrainian cities, some of which have been plunged into a dire humanitarian situation, and the defence ministers of NATO were meeting to dicuss bolstering the alliance’s eastern flank permanently.

Commenting on the peace talks, Lavrov had told the RBK newspaper he believed there were already positions upon which the sides “are close to agreement.” While the talks are difficult, “there is some hope of reaching a compromise.”

Lavrov said Ukraine’s political and military neutrality in exchange for security guarantees from Moscow was now being “seriously discussed.”

For his part, Zelensky said in a video message that negotiating positions with Russia had become more realistic but that it would take some time before Ukraine could be satisfied.

“We all want peace and victory as soon as possible,” the president said. “But it takes effort and patience.”

Ukraine is demanding an end to the war, which began with Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, and a withdrawal of Russian troops.

Among other things, Moscow is demanding that Kiev recognize the annexed Black Sea peninsula of Crimea as Russian and the separatist areas in Ukraine’s east as independent states.

Regardless of the outcome of the talks, Zelensky has vowed that Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine would end in shame, poverty and years of isolation.

Kiev has accused Russia of repeatedly targeting civilians – a claim which Moscow denies.

“The Russian state has turned into an open terrorist, and it is not embarrassed by this,” Zelensky said in another message on Wednesday.

He cited kidnappings of mayors and lawmakers in Russian-occupied territories, as well as the case of a hospital in the port city of Mariupol where the Russian military is said to be holding about 400 employees.

“And now shots are being fired from the hospital,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

Russia has not yet commented on the allegation and the reports, like countless others during the chaotic three-week-old war, could not be verified.

According to Kiev, more than 100 children have been killed since the war began.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, also reported that around 400 school buildings and teaching facilities have been attacked, and about 60 were completely destroyed. In a Facebook post, she called on the UN to investigate potential war crimes.

Zelensky has meanwhile ordered a daily minute of silence at 9 am to remember the soldiers and civilians who have died in Russia’s attack on the country.

Efforts to assist increasingly desperate residents from besieged cities continued on Wednesday, although Vereshchuk said it had not yet been possible to arrange new humanitarian corridors.

“The question of humanitarian corridors for Isyum and Mariupol is open. It is currently impossible to get people out of there safely,” Vereshchuk said. “Ways of delivering food and medicine to captured cities are being worked out.”

In recent days, people have repeatedly been able to escape via special corridors. In the encircled city of Mariupol, however, several evacuation attempts failed until on Tuesday about 20,000 people were finally able to leave.

Vereshchuk accused Russian forces of shelling humanitarian convoys and gathering points. Russia, for its part, has made similar accusations against Ukrainian troops.

Mounting reports of civilian casualties came as the United Nations Development Programme counted the longer term costs for Ukraine if the war with Russia deepens.

Around 90% of the Ukrainian population could be facing poverty in the event of a protracted conflict and 18 years of socio-economic achievements could be lost, the agency warned as it released an early projection on the war’s impact on Wednesday.

The war has also been costly for Russia, after Western nations responded to the invasion with an unprecedented onslaught of sanctions against Moscow.

However, Kiev’s allies have so far baulked at the prospect of joining the conflict. NATO has repeatedly denied Ukrainian appeals to establish a no-fly zone over the country, fearing a direct confrontation with Russia which US President Joe Biden warned would amount to “World War III.”

In a livestreamed address to the US Congress, Zelensky said “Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death.

He said if Washington was unwilling to secure the skies of Ukraine, then it should send him fighter jets “to defend our people.”

In the 10-minute-long speech Zelensky referenced Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mount Rushmore. He played graphic video of attacks on civilians and urged even tougher sanctions on Russia’s politicians and economy.

According to US media reports, Biden will announce further military aid to the tune of $800 billion later Wednesday.

On Thursday, Zelensky is set to address Germany’s Bundestag in video speech. He has spoken to several legislative bodies over the past three weeks.

In a show of solidarity with Kiev, the prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia visited Zelensky personally in Kiev on Tuesday. Their train, which has since returned to Polish territory, was watched closely from Brussels, where EU officials had warned of the dangers of making such a trip.

As the Eastern European delegation left the Ukrainian capital, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was just arriving for a five-day mission to help ease access for humanitarian organizations operating in the war-torn country and to press for greater civilian protection.

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