Firefighters work to put out a fire in a residential apartment building after it was hit by shelling in Kyiv, on March 15, 2022. Image Credit: REUTERS

Kyiv, Ukraine: Russia’s relentless bombardment of Ukraine edged closer to central Kyiv as a series of strikes hit a residential neighbourhood Tuesday, while the leaders of three European Union countries planned a bold visit to Ukraine’s capital and the number of people the conflict has driven from the country passed 3 million.

Large explosions thundered across Kyiv before dawn from what Ukrainian authorities said were artillery strikes, as Russia’s assault on the city appeared to become more systematic. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said barrages hit four multi-story buildings in the city and caused dozens of deaths.

The strikes targeted a western district of Kyiv, disrupting a relative calm that returned after an initial advance by Russian forces was stopped in the early days of the war. Tuesday’s shelling ignited a huge fire in a 15-story apartment building and spurred a frantic rescue effort.

Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko announced a new curfew for the city, saying it would run for 35 hours from 8pm Tuesday until 7am Thursday

As Russia stepped up its assault on Kyiv, the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia set out for Ukraine’s embattled capital by train to show support for the country.

“The aim of the visit is to express the European Union’s unequivocal support for Ukraine and its freedom and independence,’’ Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said in a tweet. He was joined by Janez Jansa of Slovenia, Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s de-facto leader.

EU officials characterised the visit as one the central European leaders had undertaken independently despite security risks. The 27-nation bloc’s other leaders were “informed” of the trip but did not sanction it, EU officials said.

Flood of people

The International Organisation for Migration said the number of people who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24 passed 3 million on Tuesday. The UN has described the flood of people crossing into Poland and other neighbouring countries as Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators held a second day of talks as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reached its 20th day. The Red Cross and the United Nations refugee agency say millions of people face food and medicine shortages along with the immediate conflict threats of shelling and air attacks.

The Ukrainian government said new aid and evacuation efforts would take place on Tuesday along nine corridors around the country, including the Kyiv region. But past attempts have repeatedly failed amid continued fighting.

One of the most desperate situations is in Mariupol, an encircled port city of 430,000 where local officials estimate a lethal siege has killed more than 2,300 people and left residents desperate for food, water, heat and medicine.

Civilian evacuations underway in Mariupol

The Mariupol city council reported on Tuesday that civilian evacuations were underway. The council said 2,000 civilian cars had managed to leave along a humanitarian corridor that runs for more than 260 kilometers (160 miles) west to the city of Zaporizhzhia.

The city council said another 2,000 cars were waiting to leave along the evacuation route. It was not immediately clear if the number of departed vehicles given on Tuesday included 160 cars that left the day before.

US officials say Russian forces were about 15km (9 miles) from the centre of the city as of Monday.

Fighting has intensified on Kyiv’s outskirts in recent days, and sporadic air raid sirens ring out around the capital.

The early morning artillery strikes hit the Svyatoshynskyi district of western Kyiv, adjacent to the suburb of Irpin, which has seen some of the worst battles of the conflict.

Flames shot out of the 15-story apartment building and smoke choked the air as firefighters climbed ladders to rescue people. The assault blackened several floors of the building, ripped a hole in the ground outside and blew out windows in neighbouring apartment blocks.

Rescue workers said one person died and several were rescued but others remained inside.

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Shockwaves from an explosion also damaged the entry to a downtown subway station that has been used as a bomb shelter. City authorities tweeted an image of the blown-out facade, saying trains would no longer stop at the station.

A 10-story apartment building in the Podilsky district of Kyiv, north of the government quarter, was damaged by unspecified ammunition. Russian forces also stepped up strikes overnight on Irpin and the northwest Kyiv suburbs of Hostomel and Bucha, said the head of the capital region, Oleksiy Kuleba.

“Many streets (in those areas) have been turned into a mush of steel and concrete. People have been hiding for weeks in basements, and are afraid to go out even for evacuations,’’ Kuleba said on Ukrainian television.

In the country’s east, Russian forces launched more than 60 strikes overnight on Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, according to regional administration chief Oleh Sinehubov. The strikes hit the city’s historical center, including the main marketplace.

Sinehubov said fires were raging and rescuers had pulled ``dozens of bodies of civilian residents,’’ from the ruins of destroyed apartment buildings.

Zelenskyy is seeking to extend martial law until April 24 and to require men ages 18 to 60 to stay in the country to fight. Ukraine’s parliament is expected to vote on the measure this week.

The Ukrainian leader appealed for more weapons to counter Russia’s military. He said Ukraine’s forces are rapidly using up weapons and other hardware supplied by Western nations, and he asked northern European leaders to ``help yourself by helping us.’’