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A man looks at an Ukrainian armored personnel carrier BTR-4 destroyed as a result of fight not far from the centre of Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.SERGEY BOBOK/AFP/Getty Images

Russian forces unleashed a horrific attack on Ukraine’s second-largest city Monday, killing civilians and destroying dozens of houses, authorities said, overshadowing the first day of talks between the two countries since the war began.

Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city with a population of 1.4 million people, was “massively fired upon” by rockets, interior ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko wrote on Facebook.

Oleg Synegubov, Kharkiv’s regional administration chief, said Russian artillery had pounded residential districts even though no Ukrainian army positions or strategic infrastructure were there. At least 11 people were killed, he said.

Three of the dead are children, the Ukraine parliament said on Telegram. The attacks destroyed 87 houses and injured a further 37 people. “It’s not just a war, it’s the slaughter of the Ukrainian people,” Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov said, in comments reported by the parliament.

Analysts examining images posted to social media from Kharkiv said they saw evidence of Russian forces deploying cluster munitions into urban areas of the city. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both said Russian forces appeared to have used widely banned cluster munitions, with Amnesty accusing them of attacking a preschool in northeastern Ukraine while civilians took shelter inside.

Kharkiv, which was briefly the Soviet capital of Ukraine, is an eastern city 40 kilometres from Russia. It briefly fell under Russian control Sunday, before being taken back by Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian forces still also hold Kyiv, as the Russian army continues to launch attacks and close in on the capital.

More than 500,000 Ukrainians have now fled the fighting in Ukraine, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Monday.

The renewed Russian offensive on Kharkiv Monday took place as a Ukrainian delegation, which included its Defence Minister but not President Volodymyr Zelensky, met with Russian delegates in Belarus to seek an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian troops, according to a statement from the country’s parliament. Mr. Zelensky had cautioned that a breakthrough was not expected.

The talks ended with the two sides having “found some points of contact from which common positions could be built on,” Russia’s Sputnik News said, citing Russian presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky, who led his country’s delegation. A second round is planned after the negotiators return to their capitals.

“Negotiations are difficult,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky. He accused the Russian negotiators of being “extremely biased regarding the destructive processes it launched.”

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Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters after meeting with members of the U.S. Congress that Russia had used a thermobaric weapon, known as a vacuum bomb, in its invasion of her country.

“They used the vacuum bomb today,” Ms. Markarova said after a meeting with lawmakers. “The devastation that Russia is trying to inflict on Ukraine is large.”

Elsewhere, Russia’s Interfax news agency said Russian forces have now seized two southeastern centres in Ukraine: Berdyansk and Enerhodar. Berdyansk is a port city on the Sea of Azov, where the U.S. has funded construction of military facilities in the past. Russian forces have now struck more than 1,000 Ukrainian military installations, the Russian Ministry of Defence said.

After a weekend of severe economic sanctions against Russia, the ruble fell by roughly 30 per cent to the U.S. dollar, descending to record lows, while the Central Bank of Russia suspended trading on the Moscow exchange for the week. The country banned the transfer of money outside the country, save for repayment of foreign debt.

Share prices in two Russian financial services companies with London listings, Sberbank and Tinkoff, fell by more than 60 per cent after a host of countries imposed economic measures to isolate Russia from the global financial system, including a pledge to remove some banks from the SWIFT global payments system. Russia’s central bank doubled interest rates to 20 per cent and long lines at bank machines in Russia reflected fracturing faith in the country’s financial outlook.

Defence Minister Anita Anand said Monday that Canada will send 100 Carl Gustav anti-tank weapon systems and 2,000 rockets to Ukraine. Norway committed US$226-million in humanitarian assistance and military aid to Ukraine. Finland said it will send assault rifles, ammunition and anti-tank weapons. Britain asked ports to bar access to Russian vessels. Switzerland adopted the full extent of EU sanctions against Russia, a major departure from decades of careful neutrality.

Both BP PLC and Shell PLC said they will withdraw from investments with Russian energy companies. Russian soccer teams were booted from competition by FIFA and UEFA.

Russian President Vladimir Putin put his country’s nuclear forces on their highest level of alert on Sunday, in what he said was a response to widespread Western sanctions against Russia since the invasion began.

The measures against Russia amount to an unprecedented show of opposition by Western democracies to the invasion of Ukraine, whose Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, on Monday called for even more action.

“Cut all business ties with Russia. All of them,” he wrote on Twitter. “Making business with Russia today means financing aggression, war crimes, disinformation, cyberattacks.”

Ukraine also grew more insistent in its demands for increased formal recognition by European countries, beyond the military and financial support provided to Ukraine. It is time for the EU to “immediately” grant membership to Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky said in a video address Monday, saying “our goal is to be close to all Europeans and to be equal to them.”

He said Ukraine will release prisoners with military experience, allowing them to serve sentences “in hot war zones.” The country also offered Russian soldiers nearly $60,000 if they surrender, Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a Facebook post. “You were thrown to our land to murder and be murdered,” he wrote. “Those of you who doesn’t want to become a murderer or be murdered, can be saved.”

Air alarms sounded in Kyiv, Chernihiv and Vinnytsia on Monday morning. Mr. Zelensky, in a Sunday call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said “he believed the next 24 hours was a crucial period for Ukraine,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Ukraine’s military accused Russia of raining destruction on military and civilian airfields, air defence facilities and critical infrastructure – and launching missile strikes on residential buildings in Zhytomyr and Chernihiv. Russia has denied targeting civilians.

  • A charred armoured vehicle is seen on a street in the town of Bucha in the Kyiv region, Ukraine.MAKSIM LEVIN/Reuters

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But after days of not admitting casualties to Ukraine, where wrecked tanks and dead Russian soldiers have been documented in numerous places, Russia’s Defence Ministry on Sunday acknowledged it had experienced combat losses, without specifying how severe.

Ukraine’s military has claimed considerable success in destroying Russian armour and killing its soldiers. “The Russians are not an army. They are a horde,” Serhiy Zhadan, a celebrated Ukrainian writer, wrote from Kharkiv, describing the death of civilians in that city.

Meanwhile, Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly told the United Nations Human Rights Council Monday that “this war is killing innocent people,” and forcing Ukrainians “to flee their homes and their country.” She called the Russian invasion “the largest threat to global peace in seven decades.”

At the borders, people continued to pour out of Ukraine, many of them women and children – and many after strenuous journeys. In an interview, Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita said one refugee family told her they walked to the border from Odesa. That is a distance of more than 50 kilometres. The lines for cars to enter Moldova have reached 10 kilometres in length.

The U.S. embassy in Kyiv – which closed its physical office – warned border wait times at some entry points to Poland and Moldova “remain well over 24 hours.” Others, though, moved more quickly: At the crossing to Palanca in Moldova, refugees reported crossing times of three hours.

Karim Al-Zghoul and Vitaliia Shcherbakova crossed into Moldova early Monday afternoon with their cat, Charlie, who was trembling against a chill wind. Mr. Al-Zghoul, who holds Jordanian travel documents, was in Kyiv when the city came under attack. He fled first to Odesa, then to Moldova – without knowing where might come next.

To stay in Ukraine right now, he said, “you’re pretty much playing roulette, if you’re going to live or not.” The couple left behind a bottle of Cava, labelled: “In case of Putin’s death, open and celebrate.”

With reports from Reuters

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