Residents of Ukraine's Irpin say time may be running out to get to safety

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IRPIN, Ukraine, March 7 (Reuters) - Hundreds of people streamed out of Irpin on Monday to escape Russian forces advancing towards the nearby Ukrainian capital Kyiv, some saying there were only a few residents left in the town badly damaged by recent shelling.

The numbers crossing the Irpin river and moving south towards Kyiv were lower than on recent days, although their passage was easier than on Sunday when heavy shelling and mortar fire killed at least four civilians trying to flee.

Ukrainian troops have been fighting invading Russian forces around Irpin, some 25 km (15 miles) northwest of Kyiv, for days, and some residents feared it was only a matter of time before local defences crumbled.

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"There was heavy shelling in Irpin," Galya Fedorchuk told Reuters after crossing the river via a narrow wooden plank. Ukrainian forces have destroyed the main bridge to slow the Russian advance, complicating efforts to get thousands of people to safety.

"They (the Russians) fired at houses, people," she added. "A woman and a 13-year-old child died. A few people are left here. It is hard and scary. It is a war, it is fascism, it is genocide against the whole of Ukraine."

Some 1.7 million people have fled Ukraine into neighbouring countries since the conflict began on Feb. 24, according to the United Nations, and many more remain trapped in towns and cities under siege.

Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians. It calls the campaign a "special military operation" to disarm Ukraine and remove leaders it describes as dangerous nationalists.

Ukraine and Western allies call this a transparent pretext for an invasion to conquer the nation of 44 million people.

Dozens of Irpin residents carrying children, rucksacks and pets walked or ran along a road strewn with debris and lined with burned-out cars and buildings - evidence of the ferocity of Sunday's bombardment.

One man pushed a child in a pram while another helped an elderly woman to cross the river. Soldiers checked people's papers before ushering them on.

Asked why it had taken her until now to flee, one woman said local authorities had issued a statement warning that it was their last chance to get out.

Local officials said on Monday that civilians had been able to evacuate Irpin without coming under fire. Russian forces were occupying about 30% of the town, but everything else there was under Ukrainian control, they added.

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Writing by Mike Collett-White Editing by Mark Heinrich

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