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Russia says it will cut back operations near Ukrainian capital

Ukrainian servicemen stand in trenches at a position north of Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday March 29 2022 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda) 
Nebi Quena and Yuras Karmanau, AP

Russia’s deputy defence minister said Moscow has decided to “fundamentally cut back” operations near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and the city of Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust” in talks aimed at ending the fighting.

Alexander Fomin’s statement comes after another round of talks between Russia and Ukraine began in Istanbul.

The move appears to be the first major concession the Russians have made since the invasion of Ukraine began more than a month ago.

Turkey’s foreign minister said Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have reached “a consensus and common understanding” on some issues.

Mevlut Cavusoglu said the two sides made “the most meaningful progress” since the start of the negotiations and the discussions would be followed by a meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers.

He also said a meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders was also “on the agenda” but did not give a timeframe. He said that difficult issues “will be taken up at a higher level”.

The Ukrainian general staff of the military said earlier it had noted withdrawals around Kyiv and Chernihiv, though the Pentagon said it could not corroborate the reports.

The talks in Turkey raised flickering hopes there could be progress towards ending a war that has ground into a bloody campaign of attrition.

An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the meeting in Istanbul was focused on securing a ceasefire and guarantees for Ukraine’s security – issues that have been at the heart of previous unsuccessful negotiations.

Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich is present at the face-to-face talks in Istanbul – the first in two weeks between the two countries.

Mr Abramovich, a long-standing ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is playing an unspecified mediating role at the summit in Istanbul.

Mystery over Mr Abramovich’s role in the negotiations has deepened amid reports that he may have been poisoned during an earlier round of talks.

The news outlet Bellingcat reported on Monday that Mr Abramovich and two Ukrainian delegates suffered eye pain and skin irritation consistent with chemical weapons poisoning after attending peace talks on March 3.

The UK Government said the allegations were “very concerning”, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the reports “do not correspond to reality”.

Mr Peskov said Mr Abramovich has been serving as an unofficial mediator approved by both Russia and Ukraine.

Ahead of the talks, Mr Zelensky said his country was prepared to declare its neutrality, as Moscow has demanded, and was open to compromise over the contested eastern region of Donbas – comments that might lend momentum to negotiations.

However, even as the negotiators assembled, Russian forces hit an oil depot in western Ukraine and demolished a government building in the south, causing several deaths.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the two sides had a “historic responsibility” to stop the fighting.

“We believe that there will be no losers in a just peace. Prolonging the conflict is not in anyone’s interest,” Mr Erdogan said, as he greeted the two delegations.

Mr Putin’s aim of a quick military victory in Ukraine has been thwarted by stiff resistance.

In fighting that has devolved into a stalemate, Ukrainian forces retook Irpin, a key suburb north-west of the capital, Kyiv, Mr Zelensky said late on Monday.

But he warned that Russian troops are regrouping to take the area back.

“We still have to fight, we have to endure,” Mr Zelensky said in his night-time video address to the nation.

“This is a ruthless war against our nation, against our people, against our children.”

Earlier talks between the sides failed to make progress on ending the month-long war that has killed thousands of people and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes – including almost four million who have fled the country entirely.

Russia has long demanded that Ukraine should drop any hopes of joining Nato, which Moscow sees as a threat.

Mr Zelensky indicated over the weekend he was open to that idea, saying Ukraine was ready to declare its neutrality. But he has stressed that the country needs security guarantees of its own as part of any deal.

As well as Irpin, Ukrainian forces also seized back control of Trostyanets, south of Sumy in the north-east, after weeks of Russian occupation that has left a landscape devastated by war.

In his overnight address, Mr Zelensky emphasised the situation remains tense in Ukraine’s north-east around Kharkiv, the nearest large city, and other areas, as he pressed Western countries to do more to support Ukraine, including levying harsher sanctions on Russia and providing more weapons.

“If someone is afraid of Russia, if he or she is afraid to make the necessary decisions that are important to us, in particular for us to get planes, tanks, necessary artillery, shells, it makes these people responsible for the catastrophe created by Russian troops in our cities, too,” he said.

“Fear always makes you an accomplice.”

A missile struck an oil depot in western Ukraine late on Monday, the second attack on oil facilities in a region that has been spared the worst of the fighting.

On Tuesday morning, an explosion blasted a hole in a nine-storey administration building in Mykolaiv, a southern port city that Russia has unsuccessfully tried to capture.

Seven people died in the missile attack and 22 were wounded, Mr Zelensky told Danish MPs in an address by video link.

Elsewhere, the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog arrived in Ukraine to try to ensure the safety of the country’s nuclear facilities.

Russian forces have taken control of the decommissioned Chernobyl plant, site in 1986 of the world’s worst nuclear accident, and of the active Zaporizhzhia plant, where a building was damaged in fighting.

Ukrainian officials said they would try to evacuate civilians from three southern cities on Tuesday.

Deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said humanitarian corridors would run from heavily bombed Mariupol as well as Enerhodar and Melitopol.

The latter two cities are under Russian control, but Ms Vereshchuk did not say whether Moscow had agreed to the corridors.

The Russian offensive appears to be concentrating more on Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking region where Moscow-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for eight years, officials said.

In a further indication of that shift, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said “liberating Donbas” was Moscow’s main military goal.

While that presents a possible face-saving exit strategy for Mr Putin, it has also raised Ukrainian fears the Kremlin aims to split the country, forcing it to surrender a swathe of its territory.

:: The Irish News has partnered with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) – which brings together charities including Concern Worldwide, the Red Cross and Save The Children – to raise money for refugees fleeing Ukraine.

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