Ukraine's second city heavily bombed as U.N. assembly denounces Russia

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  • Eastern city of Kharkiv suffers further heavy bombardment
  • Moscow says it has seized Kherson, mayor says troops in streets
  • UN votes overwhelmingly to censure Russia's invasion
  • Unprecedented number of nations seek war crimes probe

KYIV/KHARKIV, Ukraine, March 2 (Reuters) - Ukraine's second biggest city, Kharkiv, suffered heavy bombardment on Wednesday as Russia's week-long invasion was denounced by the United Nations in a historic vote and dozens of countries referred Moscow to be probed for potential war crimes.

The biggest attack on a European state since 1945 has caused over 870,000 people to flee, led to a barrage of economic measures against Russia, and stoked fears of wider conflict in the West unthought-of for decades.

The incursion has yet to overthrow the government in Kyiv but thousands are thought to have died or been injured and it could cause another deep hit to the global economy still emerging from the coronavirus pandemic.

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For Russians, the fallout has included queues outside banks, a plunge in the value of the rouble, and an exodus of international firms. As sanctions have tightened, Russian billionaires are moving their superyachts and the owner of Chelsea sold the soccer club.

In Ukraine, the human toll was mounting in Kharkiv, a city of 1.5 million people, where bombing has left its centre a wasteland of ruined buildings and debris.

"The Russian 'liberators' have come," one Ukrainian volunteer lamented sarcastically, as he and three others strained to carry the dead body of a man wrapped in a bedsheet out of the ruins on a main square.

A U.N. resolution reprimanding Moscow was supported by 141 of the assembly's 193 members, passed in a rare emergency session, a symbolic victory for Ukraine that increases Moscow's international isolation. read more

"More is at stake even than the conflict in Ukraine itself. This is a threat to the security of Europe and the entire rules-based order," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters after the vote.

An investigation into possible war crimes will immediately be opened by the International Criminal Court, following requests by 39 of the court's member states, an unprecedented number.

The body will start collecting evidence for "any past and present allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide committed", prosecutor Karim Khan said in a statement. read more

No one at Russia's foreign ministry was available for comment when contacted out-of-hours.

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a "special operation" that is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its neighbour's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.

The Kremlin said its forces had taken the Black Sea port of Kherson, a southern provincial capital of around 250,000 people strategically placed where the Dnipro River flows into the Black Sea. Kyiv earlier denied this.

Late on Wednesday, Kherson Mayor Igor Kolykhayev said Russian troops were in the streets and had forced their way into the city council building.

An explosion also rocked the Kyiv railway station during the night, where thousands of women and children were being evacuated.

An interior ministry adviser said the blast was caused by wreckage from a downed Russian cruise missile, not a direct rocket strike. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have so far failed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow still sought Ukraine's "demilitarisation" and that there should be a list of specified weapons that could never be deployed on Ukrainian territory. Moscow opposes Kyiv's bid to join NATO.

A Ukrainian delegation had left for a second round of talks with Russian officials on a ceasefire after a first round made little progress on Monday, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said Russia must stop bombing if it wants to negotiate.

DISPUTED DEATH TOLL

The U.N. Human Rights Office said it had confirmed the deaths of 227 civilians and 525 injuries during the conflict as of midnight on March 1, mostly caused by "the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area".

It cautioned that the real toll would be much higher due to reporting delays.

Russia's defence ministry said 498 Russian soldiers had died and another 1,597 had been wounded since the start of the invasion, the first time Moscow put a figure on its casualties. It said more than 2,870 Ukrainian soldiers and "nationalists" had been killed, Interfax news agency reported.

Ukraine said more than 7,000 Russian soldiers had been killed so far and hundreds taken prisoner.

The figures could not be independently verified.

After failing to swiftly take major cities and subdue Ukraine's military, U.S. officials have said they believe Russia will instead seek to encircle cities, cutting off supply and escape routes, then attacking with a combined force of armour, ground troops and engineers.

At least 25 people have been killed by shelling and air strikes in Kharkiv in the past 24 hours, authorities said.

Pavel Dorogoy, 36, a photographer who lives near the city centre, said Russian forces had targeted the council building, which was empty at the time, a telephone exchange, and a television tower.

"The Russians cannot enter the town so they're just attacking us from afar," he said.

Moscow denies targeting civilians.

COMPANY EXODUS

Russia's main advance on the capital - a huge armoured column, stretching for miles along the road to Kyiv - has been largely frozen in place for days, Western governments say.

The Kremlin's decision to launch war - after months of denying such plans - has shocked Russians accustomed to viewing Putin, their ruler of 22 years, as a methodical strategist.

It has also prompted global firms such as Apple (AAPL.O), Exxon (XOM.N) and Boeing (BA.N) to join an exodus from Russian markets.

SWIFT, the dominant messaging system underpinning global financial transactions, said seven Russian institutions would be excluded from March 12. read more

Russia's rouble currency plunged to a new record low on Wednesday, a slide that will hit Russians' living standards, and the stock market remained closed.

The central bank, itself under sanctions, has doubled interest rates to 20% and Fitch downgraded Russia's sovereign credit rating to 'junk' status. read more

Forbes reported that Germany had seized Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov's mega yacht in a Hamburg shipyard, while at least five superyachts owned by billionaires were anchored or cruising in Maldives, an Indian Ocean island nation that does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, data showed. read more

Roman Abramovich said he would sell London's Chelsea Football Club after 19 years of ownership and donate the money to help the victims of the war. read more

"I believe this is in the best interest of the club," he said.

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Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets and Aleksandar Vasovic in Ukraine and by Reuters bureaux Writing by Peter Graff, Gareth Jones and Costas Pitas Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Catherine Evans and Rosalba O'Brien

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