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Russian rockets target Kharkiv; 1st round of cease-fire talks called 'difficult'

"History is being made now," an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday.

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Russian rockets target Kharkiv; 1st round of cease-fire talks called 'difficult'
Territorial defense members prepare to patrol in Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday. Photo by Mikhail Palinchak/EPA-EFE

Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Rockets rained down on the strategic city of Kharkiv on Monday as Russian and Ukrainian negotiators held a "difficult" initial round of talks in Belarus aimed at halting the invasion.

Dozens of people were killed and injured by shelling in residential areas of Ukraine's second-largest city, the interior ministry officials said, while Ukrainian presidential adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak said an initial round of talks aimed at halting the invasion of Ukraine didn't yield any breakthroughs.

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The ministry said one woman died and 31 people were injured in Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people located close to the Russian border -- but warned the casualties could mount -- as Russian shells hit civilian neighborhoods, which analysts warned represented an escalation of hostilities in the five-day-old attack on Ukraine.

"There is no forgiveness for this! Defeat the enemy with all our might and means! Glory to Ukraine," the interior ministry exhorted in its post, which was accompanied by gruesome images of dead and injured civilians and smoke rising from buildings.

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"Kharkiv has just been massively fired upon by [rockets]," interior ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko wrote in another Facebook post, adding there were "dozens of dead and hundreds of wounded" in the city.

The attack on Kharkiv -- a key Russian military objective -- came after invading troops were repelled in an earlier attempt to enter the city on Sunday.

Russian forces have made advances at several points along the Ukrainian border since President Vladimir Putin ordered the start of the invasion last Thursday. Rocket fire and shelling have caused substantial damage across the country, and a number of videos posted to social media have shown small missiles striking civilian areas.

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Russian troops on Monday seized two cities in southeastern Ukraine and an area near a nuclear power plant, according to the Russian Interfax news agency. Elsewhere, however, they encountered strong resistance from Ukrainian forces.

Russian forces still had not entered the capital of Kyiv as night fell Monday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a briefing.

"We still assess that they're outside the city center, but, what we know clearly, that they have intentions with respect to Kyiv," he told reporters.

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Meanwhile, Podolyak said in a tweet that negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian delegates in Belarus were "difficult" although no "obligatory ultimatums" had been issued.

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"Unfortunately, the Russian side is still extremely biased regarding the destructive processes it launched," he wrote.

The negotiators made "certain decisions" that could be implemented as a "roadmap" to a cease-fire in Ukraine and have now returned to their respective capitals for consultations, Podolyak told reporters, according to CNN.

"The parties discussed holding another round of negotiations where these decisions can develop," he said.

"Ukraine is ready to continue seeking a diplomatic solution, but Ukraine is not ready to surrender or capitulate," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told CNBC, adding that he remained skeptical the talks will be successful.

"I'm a diplomat, I have to believe in the success of talks, but at the same time my main goal as a diplomat now is to impose more sanctions on Russia, to bring more weapons to Ukraine and to isolate Russia as much as we can in the international arena so I'm focused on this part of diplomacy," he said

Ukraine submitted a formal application on Monday to immediately become a member of the European Union in a bid to shore up security, as Ukrainian forces fight Russian troops for the fifth day and leaders begin possible peace talks.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a televised address that Ukraine has a right to join the EU as its 28th member, and suggested a "special procedure" to get the admission done.

"I'm convinced Ukraine has earned the right and that this is possible," he said in a televised address, according to Newsweek.

Ukrainian officials said later on Monday that it had signed a formal application and sent it for EU consideration.

"Just now the President of Ukraine V. Zelensky signed a historic document-application for Ukraine's membership in the European Union," presidential spokesman Andrii Sybiha said in a Facebook post.

"The documents are already on their way to Brussels! Congratulations, Ukraine, congratulations to all of us! History is being made now."

Zelensky said late on Sunday that the next 24 hours would be a critical period for Ukrainian forces and civilians who are attempting to repel Russian troops.

In an interview with Euronews, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU wants Ukraine to join, but offered no timetable for when that could happen. She called Ukraine "one of us and we want them in the European Union."

The commission recently said that it would send weapons to Ukraine, block Russian-supported media operating in the EU and prohibit Russia from using its airspace.

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Von der Leyen said as for Ukraine joining the European Union, the body will respect its established process, such as integrating the Ukrainian market into the single market.

"We have very close cooperation on the energy grid, for example," she said, according to Euronews. "So many topics where we work very closely together and indeed over time, they belong to us. They are one of us and we want them in."

Filippo Grandi, head of the United Nations refugee agency, also said in a tweet on Monday that more than 500,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighboring states. On Sunday, he put the number at around 370,000 and said the refugees have fled to Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova and other Eastern European countries.

"I have worked in refugee crises for almost 40 years and I have rarely seen such an incredibly fast-rising exodus of people -- the largest, surely, within Europe, since the Balkan wars," Grandi told the U.N. Security Council.

Scenes from the Russian war on Ukraine

European Union leaders attend a summit at the Chateau de Versailles near Paris on March 11, 2022. Photo by the European Union/ UPI | License Photo

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