Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned against the formation of a “pseudo-republic” in the south of his country as he revealed at least 1,300 Ukrainian troops have died so far in the invasion.
Mr Zelensky said Russians were using blackmail and bribery in an attempt to force local officials to form a “pseudo-republic” in the southern Kherson region, much like those in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Protection for the two eastern regions where pro-Russian separatists began fighting Ukrainian forces in 2014 was used as a pretext by Russia to start the invasion.
Kherson, a vital Black Sea port of 290,000 residents, was the first major city to fall earlier this month.
Russia bombarded cities across Ukraine on Saturday, pounding Mariupol in the south, shelling the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv, and thwarting the efforts of people trying to flee the violence.
In Mariupol, which has endured some of the worst punishment since Russia invaded, efforts to bring food, water and medicine into the port city of 430,000 and to evacuate civilians, were prevented by unceasing attacks.
More than 1,500 people have died in the city during the siege, according to the mayor’s office, and the shelling has even interrupted efforts to bury the dead in mass graves.
“They are bombing it (Mariupol) 24 hours a day, launching missiles. It is hatred. They kill children,” Mr Zelensky said during a video address.
Later on Saturday, he reported that 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers have died in fighting since the February 24 start of the Russian invasion.
Meanwhile, French and German leaders spoke on Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a failed attempt to reach a ceasefire.
According to the Kremlin, Mr Putin laid out terms for ending the war, including Ukraine’s demilitarisation and its ceding of territory, among other demands.
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that Russian forces captured Mariupol’s eastern outskirts, tightening the armed squeeze on the strategic port.
Taking Mariupol and other ports on the Azov Sea could allow Russia to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Mr Zelensky encouraged his people to keep up their resistance, which many analysts said has prevented the rapid offensive and military victory the Kremlin likely expected while planning to invade Russia’s ex-Soviet neighbour.
“The fact that the whole Ukrainian people resist these invaders has already gone down in history, but we do not have the right to let up our defence, no matter how difficult it may be for us,” he said.
Mr Zelensky again deplored Nato’s refusal to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine and said Ukraine has sought ways to procure air defence assets, though he did not elaborate.
Mr Zelensky also accused Russia of employing “a new stage of terror” with the alleged kidnapping of the mayor of Melitopol, a city 119 miles west of Mariupol.
After residents of the occupied city demonstrated for the mayor’s release on Saturday, the Ukrainian leader called on Russian forces to heed the calls.
“Please hear in Moscow!” Mr Zelensky said. “Another protest against Russian troops, against attempts to bring the city to its knees.”
In multiple areas around the capital, artillery barrages sent residents scurrying for shelter as air raid sirens wailed.
Britain’s Defence Ministry said Russian ground forces that had been massed north of Kyiv for most of the war had edged to within 15 miles of the city centre and spread out, likely to support an attempted encirclement.
As artillery pounded Kyiv’s north-western outskirts, black and white columns of smoke rose south-west of the capital after a strike on an ammunition depot in the town of Vasylkiv caused hundreds of small explosions.
Thousands of soldiers on both sides are believed to have been killed along with many civilians.
At least 2.5 million people have fled the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The Ukrainian chief prosecutor’s office said on Saturday at least 79 children have been killed and nearly 100 have been wounded.
Most of the victims were in the Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Sumy, Kherson and Zhytomyr regions, the office said, noting that the numbers are not final because active fighting continues.