Battle for Ukrainian capital underway as explosions seen and heard in Kyiv

CNN  — 

Explosions have been seen and heard in parts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, as the fight by Ukrainian forces to hold back a Russian advance on the capital intensifies in the early hours of Saturday morning, amid warnings the city could fall within days and as officials handed out weapons to reservists.

“This night will be very difficult, and the enemy will use all available forces to break the resistance of Ukrainians,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a late-night video message Friday. “This night we have to stand ground. The fate of Ukraine is being decided right now.”

Earlier Saturday, videos from eyewitnesses showed explosions taking place in an area north-west of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. There is a military base in the area.

CNN teams in the capital also reported hearing loud explosions to the west and south of the city Saturday. Shortly afterward, Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications said clashes are underway in an eastern suburb as well – as Russian forces close in on the capital from multiple sides.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian armed forces reported heavy fighting around the city of Vasylkiv, some 30 kilometers southwest of Kyiv.

“Heavy fighting is currently underway in the town of Vasylkiv in the Kyiv region, where the occupiers are trying to land a landing party,” the armed forces said.

Russian forces are close to Kyiv, Zelensky confirmed in his message Friday, advancing on the capital from the north and east after seizing control Thursday of an airbase just north of the city. But “Ukrainians resist the Russian aggression heroically,” he said.

Russia’s military claimed earlier Friday its forces had staged a “successful landing operation” to capture Hostomel airfield, viewed as strategically important, on Kyiv’s outskirts.

Zelensky’s comments came hours after a video was posted on his Facebook page, showing him with a group of men, saying, “We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are defending Ukraine.”

Before dawn Friday, explosions lit up the sky above the capital as Russia targeted the city with missile strikes, according to a Ukrainian government adviser. A CNN team reported hearing two large blasts in central Kyiv and a third loud explosion in the distance, followed by at least three more explosions to the south-west of the city a few hours later.

“Strikes on Kyiv with cruise or ballistic missiles continued,” Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine told reporters via text message Friday.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Russian reconnaissance troops had entered the Obolon district of northern Kyiv, just a few miles from the city center. Videos from the area showed chaotic scenes as civilians tried to hide from small arms fire.

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Ukrainian military vehicles move past Independence Square in central Kyiv on February 24, 2022.

A tweet from the ministry asked citizens of the district to report any suspicious movements, adding: “Make Molotov cocktails and take down the occupier.”

CNN witnessed a group of Ukrainian security forces leave the city police headquarters with weapons and ammunition – apparently heading towards Obolon.

Meanwhile, 92 people working at the Chernobyl power plant, the site of the world’s worst-ever nuclear disaster, have been taken hostage, the Ukrainian ambassador to the US said Friday. Russian forces took control of the site on Thursday, sparking fears that the fighting could interfere with the operation of nuclear waste facilities.

As Russian troops advance, US intelligence officials are concerned that Kyiv could fall under Russian control within days, according to two sources familiar with the latest intelligence.

However, the latest British defense intelligence assessment said Russia had made “limited progress” Friday in its attack.

“Fighting continues in key locations. Russia has made limited progress so far today and Ukraine retains control of key cities. Ukrainian MOD reports that Russian forces have arrived in the suburbs of Kyiv,” the UK Ministry of Defence tweeted.

A senior US defense official told reporters that the Russians have “about a third of their combat power” in Ukraine out of the total combat power they have amassed on the country’s borders right now, but “that does not mean that they will not commit more.”

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry earlier said that airborne assault troops blew up a bridge over the Teteriv River at Ivankiv, about 30 miles north of Kyiv, successfully preventing a Russian column of forces from advancing towards the capital, which has a population of close to 3 million.

A Ukrainian firefighter walks between fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, February 25, 2022. It was unclear what aircraft crashed and what brought it down.

For now, Ukraine’s democratically elected government remains intact but President Volodymr Zelensky warned in a video address late Thursday that “enemy sabotage groups” had entered this city and he is their No. 1 target. “They want to destroy Ukraine politically by destroying the head of state,” he said.

“Russian forces continued to launch missile strikes on the territory of Ukraine. They say that they are only targeting military facilities, but these are lies. In fact, they do not distinguish in which areas they operate,” he said. “Such attacks on our capital haven’t occurred since 1941.”

In an address Friday morning, Zelensky said Ukrainians were “showing their true heroism” but that they were defending their country “alone.” The sanctions imposed on Russia by Western powers are “not enough to get these foreign troops off our soil,” he said.

A few hours later, Zelensky released a message in which he again called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold direct talks. “There is fighting all over Ukraine now. Let’s sit down at the negotiation table to stop the people’s deaths,” he said, speaking in Russian.

Shortly afterward, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was ready to send a delegation to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, for talks with Ukraine, Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti reported.

“As you know, today the President of Ukraine Zelensky announced his readiness to discuss the neutral status of Ukraine,” Peskov said, according to RIA. The talks would concern “neutral status,” he suggested. Peskov said later Friday that the Ukrainian side had countered with a proposal to meet in Warsaw and then dropped contact.

Zelensky has not directly proposed neutral status but has signaled a willingness to discuss it, while insisting his country be provided security guarantees.

“Ukraine has been and remains ready to talk about a ceasefire and peace. This is our constant position,” Sergii Nykyforov, a spokesperson for Zelensky, said late Friday. He also denied what he called “claims that we have refused to negotiate.”

Meanwhile, Putin called on Ukraine’s armed forces to overthrow their government in remarks to his security council Friday.

“Do not let Banderites (Ukrainian nationalists) and neo-Nazis use your children, wives and old people as human shields,” Putin said in remarks aired on Russian state television. “Take power into your own hands, it looks like it will be easier for us to come to an agreement than with this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis that has settled in Kyiv and taken hostage the entire Ukrainian people.”

Putin frequently repeats the baseless and inaccurate claim that the democratically elected Ukrainian government is a “Nazi” or “fascist” regime. The language has been roundly condemned internationally, especially considering that Zelensky is Jewish.

Asked by CNN at a news conference Friday what Moscow’s plans were for the leadership of Ukraine as Russian forces advance on Kyiv, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov replied: “Nobody is going to attack the people of Ukraine.”

In an interview with CNN on the streets of Kyiv, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko accused Putin of being “simply crazy” in wanting to “come here to kill Ukrainians” – and vowed they would resist. “We demonstrate a unique quality that we can stand against Russian aggression,” he said.

A photograph taken on February 24, 2022 shows an Ukrainian infantry combat vehicle standing guard on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Homes damaged

The advance on Kyiv comes only a day after Russian forces entered Ukraine from three sides, by land, sea and air, prompting a barrage of international condemnation and sanctions – and questions about Putin’s wider ambitions for the country and its capital.

It’s unclear how long Ukrainian forces can resist the advance of Russian forces who are much better equipped and have superior air power.

Two residential buildings in Kyiv suffered damage in the early hours of Friday, but it’s not clear if they were intentionally struck or hit by debris, or if anyone was injured.

Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Evgeny Yenin told CNN a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jet was shot down over Kyiv. Photos tweeted by the emergency forces appear to show a fire at a two-story private house with debris from what looks to be a plane nearby. It is unclear if the house was hit by remnants of the jet.

Separately, images showed firefighters working to put out a blaze at an apartment building on the left bank of the city.