More than 1 million people have fled Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, in the swiftest refugee exodus this century, the United Nations said Thursday, as Moscow said it was ready for more talks to end fighting even as its forces pressed their assaults on the country’s second-largest city and two strategic seaports.
The tally the U.N. refugee agency released was reached Wednesday and amounts to more than 2% of Ukraine’s population being forced out of the country in seven days. The mass evacuation could be seen in Kharkiv, a city of about 1.5 million people where residents desperate to escape falling shells and bombs crowded the city’s train station and pressed onto trains, not always knowing where they were headed.
With a column of tanks and other vehicles apparently stalled for days outside the capital of Kyiv, fighting continued on multiple fronts across Ukraine. A second round of talks aimed at ending the fighting was expected later Thursday in neighboring Belarus — though the two sides appeared to have little common ground.
“We are ready to conduct talks, but we will continue the operation because we won’t allow Ukraine to preserve a military infrastructure that threatens Russia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, adding that it would let Ukrainians choose what government they should have.
Lavrov said that the West has continuously armed Ukraine, trained its troops and built up bases there to turn Ukraine into a bulwark against Russia — repeating Russian claims that it has used to justify its operation in Ukraine.
The U.S. and its allies have insisted that NATO is a defensive alliance that doesn’t pose a threat to Russia. And the West fears Russia's invasion is meant to overthrow Ukraine's government and install a friendly government.
Russian forces continued their pressure. Britain’s Defense Ministry said Mariupol, a large city on the Azov Sea, was encircled by Russian forces. The status of another vital port, Kherson, a Black Sea shipbuilding city of 280,000, remained unclear.
At least 227 civilians have been killed and another 525 wounded since the invasion began, according to the latest figures from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Earlier, Ukraine said more than 2,000 civilians have died, a figure that could not be independently verified.
The U.N. office uses strict methodology and counts only confirmed casualties, and admits its figures are a vast undercount.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.