Ukraine's Zelenskiy defiant as Russian forces, despite setbacks, regroup near Kyiv

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  • EU imposes new sanctions on Russia
  • Biden to call for an end of normal trade
  • Satellite images show Russians redeploying north of Kyiv
  • Civilians huddle underground as Russia bombards cities

LVIV, Ukraine, March 11 (Reuters) - President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Friday Ukraine was at a "strategic turning point" in the war as Russian forces bombarded cities across the country and appeared to be regrouping for a possible assault on Kyiv, with satellite images showing them firing artillery as they closed in on the capital.

The governor of the Kharkiv region, on the Russian border, said a psychiatric hospital had been hit, and the mayor of the city of Kharkiv said about 50 schools there had been destroyed.

Russia also carried out air strikes deeper into western Ukraine, far from the battlefields in the north, east and south where ground combat has raged.

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In the besieged southern city of Mariupol, the city council said at least 1,582 civilians had been killed as a result of Russian shelling and a 12-day blockade that has left hundreds of thousands trapped with no food, water, heat or power.

Russia's defence ministry said the Black Sea port was now completely surrounded and Ukrainian officials accused Russia of deliberately preventing civilians getting out and humanitarian convoys getting in.

A new effort to evacuate civilians along a humanitarian corridor from Mariupol appeared to have failed, with Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk saying Russian shelling prevented them from leaving.

"The situation is critical," Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Vadym Denysenko said.

Western countries meanwhile took more economic steps to try to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his assault.

President Joe Biden, who this week banned U.S. imports of Russian oil, said the G7 industrialised nations would revoke Russia's "most favoured nation" trade status. He also announced a U.S. ban on imports of Russian seafood, alcohol and diamonds. Washington later sanctioned more oligarchs and elites, including board members of Russian banks, in addition to a dozen lawmakers. read more

European Union leaders said they were ready to impose harsher sanctions on Russia and might give Ukraine more funds for arms. But they rejected Ukraine's request to join the bloc.

At a meeting with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Putin said there were "certain positive shifts" in talks with Kyiv, but did not elaborate.

GEARING UP

With the Russian assault in its third week, Zelenskiy, who has rallied his people with a series of addresses from Kyiv, said Ukraine had "already reached a strategic turning point".

"It is impossible to say how many days we still have (ahead of us) to free Ukrainian land. But we can say we will do it," he said. "We are already moving towards our goal, our victory."

Russia's main force has been stalled north of Kyiv, having failed in what Western analysts say was an initial plan for a lightning assault.

But images taken on Friday and released by private U.S. satellite firm Maxar showed Russian forces were continuing to deploy closer to Kyiv and firing artillery toward residential areas, according to the company's analysis.

Multiple homes and buildings were on fire and widespread damage was seen throughout the town of Moschun, northwest of Kyiv, Maxar said. Reuters could not independently verify the images.

Britain's defence ministry said Russia appeared to be gearing up for a new offensive in coming days that would probably include Kyiv.

However, the Russian ground forces were still making only limited progress, hampered by logistical problems and Ukrainian resistance, it said in its intelligence update.

The Ukrainian general staff said Russian forces were regrouping after taking heavy losses. Ukrainian troops had pushed some back to "unfavourable positions" near the Belarus border, it said.

Kyiv's mayor, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, said the capital had enough essential supplies to last a couple of weeks. Supply lines remained open.

'WRONG ASSUMPTIONS'

Ukrainian authorities said a psychiatric hospital near the eastern town of Izyum had been hit. Emergency services said no one was hurt, but Kharkiv governor Oleh Synegubov called the attack a war crime. Reuters could not verify the report.

Moscow denies it has been targeting civilians in what it calls a "special operation" to disarm and "de-Nazify" Ukraine. Ukraine and its allies say this was a baseless pretext for Russia's invasion of the democratic country of 44 million.

Air strikes near a kindergarten in the central city of Dnipro killed at least one person on Friday, emergency services said.

The mayor of Lutsk said four people were killed and six wounded in an attack on an airfield - a rare strike so far into western Ukraine. A U.S. official said such attacks were aimed at preventing western bases from being used by Ukraine's air force. read more

Britain's defense intelligence ministry said Russian air and missile forces struck the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk in the past 24 hours.

In Kharkiv, hundreds were sheltering in metro stations.

Nastya, a young girl lying on a makeshift bed on the floor of a train carriage, said she had been there for over a week, unable to move around much and ill with a virus.

"I'm scared for my home, for the homes of my friends, very scared for the whole country, and scared for myself of course," she said. read more

Moscow said its separatist allies in the southeast had captured the town of Volnovakha, north of Mariupol.

But Mathieu Boulegue, an expert at London's Chatham House think tank, said Moscow might not have sufficient troops to achieve its goals.

"You can't invade a country on a one-on-one ratio (of troops). Nobody has done it, which means that either something was wrong or they had very wrong assumptions," he told Reuters.

In a nighttime video address, Zelenskiy accused Russia of abducting the mayor of Melitopol, a captured city in southeastern Ukraine, calling it a "new stage of terror." Russia has not commented on the fate of Mayor Ivan Fedorov.

Zelenskiy said 7,144 people were evacuated from four cities on Friday, a sharply lower number than each of the two previous days. He accused Russian troops of refusing to allow civilians out of Mariupol and vowed to try to deliver food and medicines there on Saturday.

Ukraine also raised the prospect of Moscow's ally Belarus entering the war, accusing Russia of staging "false flag" air attacks on Belarus from Ukraine to provide an excuse.

Belarus has served as a staging post for Russian forces before and after the Feb. 24 invasion. The Kremlin did not respond to a request for comment.

Putin and Lukashenko agreed Moscow would supply its smaller neighbour with up-to-date military equipment, the official Belarus Belta news agency said.

NO EU MEMBERSHIP

Away from the battlefields, EU leaders meeting near Paris agreed to spend more on defence and cut reliance on Russian energy supplies by 2027. But they declined Ukraine's call for a speedy admission to the EU.

Western countries have moved to isolate Russia from the global financial system. The Russian rouble ended a third week of hefty losses, stripped of a third of its value in Moscow exchanges since Russia invaded Ukraine. read more

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the U.S. economy was strong - though inflation was a problem - and acknowledged there would be spillovers from sanctions against Russia. read more

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that on Saturday the bloc would suspend Moscow's privileged trade and economic treatment; crack down on its use of crypto-assets; and ban the import of iron and steel goods from Russia as well as the export of luxury goods in the other direction. read more

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Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Peter Graff, Angus MacSwan and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Kevin Liffey and Daniel Wallis

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