LVIV, Ukraine, March 11 (Reuters) – Russian forces bearing down on Kyiv are regrouping northwest of the Ukrainian capital, satellite pictures showed, in what Britain said could be preparation for an assault on the city within days.
Ukraine accused Russian forces on Friday of bombing and shelling cities across the country, including hitting a psychiatric hospital near the eastern town of Izyum where hundreds of patients were sheltering in the basement.
In Russia, prosecutors asked a court to declare Meta Platforms (FB.O) an “extremist” organisation on Friday, after the owner of Facebook and Instagram allowed posts calling for the death of invading Russian troops.
Russia has been pounding Ukraine’s cities while its main attack force north of Kyiv has been stalled on roads since the invasion’s early days, having failed in what Western countries say was an initial plan for a lightning assault on the capital.
Images released by private U.S. satellite firm Maxar showed armoured units manoeuvring in and through towns close to an airport on Kyiv’s northwest outskirts, site of fighting since Russia landed paratroops there in the first hours of the war.
Other elements had repositioned near the settlement of Lubyanka just to the north, with towed artillery howitzers in firing positions, Maxar said.
“Russia is likely seeking to reset and re-posture its forces for renewed offensive activity in the coming days,” Britain’s Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence update. “This will probably include operations against the capital Kyiv.”
The British update said Russian ground forces were still making only limited progress, hampered by persistent logistical issues and Ukrainian resistance.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine had “already reached a strategic turning point” in the conflict.
“It is impossible to say how many days we still have to free Ukrainian land. But we can say we will do it,” he said in a televised address.
In an overnight statement, the Ukrainian general staff said Russian forces were regrouping after taking heavy losses. Ukraine had pushed Russians back to “unfavourable positions” in the Polyskiy district, near the Belarus border to the rear of the main Russian column heading towards Kyiv, it said.
Emergency services said no one was hurt in the psychiatric hospital struck in eastern Ukraine, as the patients were already sheltering in the basement.
But Oleh Synegubov, governor of the Kharkiv region, said 330 people had been in the building and called the attack “a war crime against civilians”. Reuters could not immediately verify the report and there was no immediate comment from Moscow.
It came less than two days after Russia bombed a maternity hospital in the besieged southern port of Mariupol. Ukraine said pregnant women were among those hurt there; Russia said the hospital was no longer functioning and was occupied by Ukrainian fighters when it was hit.
For a seventh straight day, Russia announced plans to cease fire to let civilians leave Mariupol, where hundreds of thousands of people trapped with no food, water, heat or power. All previous attempts to reach the city have failed with both sides accusing each other of failing to observe ceasefires.
Ukraine said it would try yet again to help people leave: “We hope it will work today,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
Moscow denies it has been targeting civilians in what it calls a “special operation” to disarm and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
PUTIN SEES ‘POSITIVE SHIFTS’
President Vladimir Putin has tried to project an air of calm since ordering the invasion on Feb. 24. At a meeting with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko on Friday, Putin said there were “certain positive shifts” in talks with Ukrainians, though he did not elaborate.
Earlier, at a meeting of his security council, Putin approved a proposal to recruit 16,000 fighters from the Middle East.
The Russian state prosecutor’s office said it had asked a court to designate Meta “extremist” and ban it from Russia. The country’s investigative committee also said it had opened a criminal case “in connection with illegal calls for murder and violence against citizens of the Russian Federation” by Meta employees. Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Its spokesperson had said on Thursday the company had temporarily eased rules to allow posts such as “death to the Russian invaders”, though not calls for violence against Russian civilians. Reuters reported that internal emails sent to content moderators showed guidelines had allowed some posts calling for the death of Putin or Lukashenko.
“We don’t want to believe the Reuters report – it is just too difficult to believe,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We hope it is not true because if it is true then it will mean that there will have to be the most decisive measures to end the activities of this company.”
European Union leaders were holding a summit at France’s Versailles Palace, expected to be dominated by calls for more action to punish Russia, assist Ukraine and cope with an influx of nearly 2.5 million refugees in just two weeks.
In the two weeks since the invasion, Western countries have swiftly moved to isolate Russia from world trade and the global financial system to an extent never before visited on such a large economy.
In the latest move, sources said U.S. President Joe Biden would ask the Group of Seven industrialised nations and the EU to strip Russia of normal rights under global trading rules, known as most-favoured nation status.
While Russia’s advance on Kyiv has been stalled and it has failed so far to capture any cities in northern or eastern Ukraine, it has made more substantial progress in the south. Moscow said on Friday its separatist allies in the southeast had captured the town of Volnovakha north of Mariupol.
Residents of Ukrainian cities have packed into underground metros for shelter. Nastya, a young girl lying on a makeshift bed on the floor of a metro train carriage in Kharkiv, said she had been there for more than a week, unable to move around much and ill with a virus that had being going around.
“I’m scared for my home, for the homes of my friends, very scared for the whole country, and scared for myself of course.”
On Friday, three air strikes in the central city of Dnipro killed at least one person, state emergency services said, adding that the strikes were near a kindergarten.
Ihor Polishshuk, the mayor of the city of Lutsk, said four people were killed and six wounded in an attack on an airfield there, a rare strike on a target deep in western Ukraine far from the battlefields in the north, east and south.