By NEBI QENA and CARA ANNA – Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Ukraine said it retook a strategically important suburb of Kyiv early Tuesday, as Russian forces squeezed other areas near the capital and their attack on the embattled southern port of Mariupol raged unabated.

Explosions and bursts of gunfire shook Kyiv, and black smoke rose from a spot in the north. Intensified artillery fire could be heard from the northwest, where Russia has sought to encircle and capture several suburban areas of the capital, a crucial target.

Residents sheltered at home or underground under a 35-hour curfew imposed by authorities in the capital that runs to Wednesday morning.

Russian forces also pressed their siege of Mariupol after the southern port city’s defenders refused demands to surrender, with fleeing civilians describing relentless bombardments and corpses lying in the streets. But the Kremlin’s ground offensive in other parts of the country advanced slowly or not at all, knocked back by lethal hit-and-run attacks by the Ukrainians.

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Early Tuesday, Ukrainian troops forced Russian forces out of the Kyiv suburb of Makariv after a fierce battle, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said. The regained territory allowed Ukrainian forces to retake control of a key highway and block Russian troops from surrounding Kyiv from the northwest.

Still, the Defense Ministry said Russian forces battling toward Kyiv were able to partially take other northwest suburbs, Bucha, Hostomel and Irpin, some of which had been under attack almost since Russia’s military invaded almost a month ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces are increasingly concentrating their air power and artillery on Ukraine’s cities and the civilians living there.

The invasion has driven more than 10 million people from their homes, a number similar to the population of Portugal and almost a quarter of Ukraine’s pre-war population, according to the United Nations. The UN has confirmed over 900 civilian deaths while saying the real toll is probably much higher. Estimates of Russian military deaths vary, but even conservative figures are in the low thousands.

US and British officials say Kyiv remains Russia’s primary objective. The bulk of Moscow’s forces remain miles from the center, but missiles and artillery have destroyed apartment buildings and a large shopping mall, which was left a smoking ruin after being hit late Sunday by strikes that killed eight people, according to emergency officials.

A senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the military’s assessment, said Russia had increased air sorties over the past two days, carrying out as many as 300 over a 24-hour period, and has fired more than 1,100 missiles into Ukraine since the invasion began.

US President Joe Biden, who is heading to Europe later in the week to meet with allies, suggested Monday evening that worse may be still to come.

“Putin’s back is against the wall,” Biden said. “He wasn’t anticipating the extent or the strength of our unity. And the more his back is against the wall, the greater the severity of the tactics he may employ. “

Biden reiterated accusations that Putin is considering resorting to using chemical weapons.

As Russian forces try to squeeze Kyiv, talks to end the fighting have continued by video but failed to bridge the chasm between the two sides. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Ukrainian television late Monday that he would be prepared to consider waiving any bid by Ukraine to join NATO – a key Russian demand – in exchange for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and a guarantee of Ukraine’s security.

Zelenskyy also suggested Kyiv would be open to future discussions on the status of Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014, and areas of the eastern Donbas region held by Russian-backed separatists. But he said that was a topic for another time.

As part of a series of addresses to foreign legislatures to drum up support for Ukraine, Zelenskyy spoke to Italian lawmakers on Tuesday, telling them that the besieged port of Mariupol had been utterly destroyed in the Russian onslaught. He also spoke to Pope Francis.

“Imagine a Genoa completely burned down,” he said to rapt lawmakers, citing an Italian port city of a similar size. He said 117 children had been killed in the war so far.

Some people managed to flee Mariupol, where weeks of Russian bombardment has cut off electricity, water and food supplies and severed communication with the outside world. The city council said Tuesday that more than 1,100 people who had escaped the besieged city were on their way in a convoy of buses to another city to Mariupol’s northwest.

But the Red Cross said a humanitarian aid convoy trying to reach the embattled city with desperately needed supplies still had not been able to enter.

Perched on the Sea of ​​Azov, Mariupol is a crucial port for Ukraine and lies along a stretch of territory between Russia and Crimea. As such, it is a key target that has been besieged for more than three weeks and has seen some of the worst suffering of the war.

It is not clear how close its capture might be. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday that their forces were still defending the city and had destroyed a Russian patrol boat and electronic warfare complex, and Britain’s Defense Ministry said its intelligence showed that “Ukrainian forces continue to repulse Russian attempts to occupy” the city.

Mariupol had a prewar population of about 430,000. Around a quarter are believed to have left in the opening days of the war, and tens of thousands escaped over the past week by way of the humanitarian corridors. Other attempts have been thwarted by the fighting.

Mariupol officials said on March 15 that at least 2,300 people had died in the siege, with some buried in mass graves. There has been no official estimate since then, but the number is feared to be far higher.

Those who have made it out of Mariupol told of a devastated city.

“There are no buildings there anymore,” said 77-year-old Maria Fiodorova, who crossed the border to Poland on Monday after five days of travel.

A long line of vehicles stood on a road in Bezimenne, east of Mariupol, as residents sought shelter at a temporary camp set up by Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region. An estimated 5,000 people from Mariupol have taken refuge in the camp. Many arrived in cars with signs that said “children” in Russian.

A woman who gave her name as Yulia said she and her family sought shelter in Bezimenne after a bombing destroyed six houses behind her home.

“That’s why we got in the car, at our own risk, and left in 15 minutes because everything is destroyed there, dead bodies are lying around,” she said.

In all, more than 8,000 people escaped to safer areas Monday through humanitarian corridors, including about 3,000 from Mariupol, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

Overall, more than 3.5 million people have fled Ukraine, while another 6.5 million have been displaced inside the country.

Matthew Saltmarsh, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, called the speed and scale of people fleeing danger in Ukraine “unprecedented in recent memory.”

Anna reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, and other AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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