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Russian forces have bombed a theatre in the besieged city of Mariupol where hundreds of civilians were sheltering, Ukrainian officials have said, even as the sides signalled optimism over continuing talks to end the war in Ukraine.

There was no immediate word on deaths or injuries in what the Mariupol city council said was an air strike on the theatre on Wednesday. The Ukrainian foreign ministry said many people were trapped in the building and accused Russia of committing a war crime.

The Russian defence ministry denied attacking the building and accused the Azov Battalion, a far-right Ukrainian militia, of blowing it up, RIA news agency said.

In Kyiv, residents huddled in homes and shelters amid a citywide curfew that runs until Thursday morning, as Russia shelled areas in and around the city, including a residential neighborhood 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the presidential palace.

A 12-storey apartment building in central Kyiv erupted in flames after being hit by shrapnel.

A Ukrainian serviceman guards his position in Mariupol
A Ukrainian serviceman guards his position in Mariupol, Ukraine on March 12 [Mstyslav Chernov/AP Photo]

Separately, a group of 10 people was killed by Russian forces in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv while they were lined up waiting for bread, according to a report by public broadcaster Suspilne.

The report included a photo allegedly showing the corpses. Russia’s defence ministry denied the charges, arguing that none of its troops are in Chernihiv, and said the atrocity was either carried out by Ukrainian forces or that the entire thing was a ruse by Ukrainian intelligence.

Later on Wednesday in the same city in northern Ukraine, five people, including three children, were killed when Russian forces shelled a residential building, emergency officials said.

Putin says operation going to plan

Russian troops have halted at the gates of the capital after taking heavy losses and failing to seize any major city in a three-week war that Western officials say Moscow expected to win within days.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said the operation was unfolding “successfully, in strict accordance with pre-approved plans”, and he decried Western sanctions against Moscow.

He accused the West of trying to “squeeze us, to put pressure on us, to turn us into a weak, dependent country”.

International pressure against the Kremlin mounted and its isolation deepened as the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, ordered Russia to stop attacking Ukraine, though there was little hope it would comply.

Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Kyiv, said countries that refuse to abide by court orders can be referred to the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds veto power. However, the ruling “helps build the case for any prosecution down the road”, Khan said.

The fighting has sent more than three million people fleeing Ukraine, according to the UN refugee agency.

Ongoing talks

Another round of talks between the two sides was scheduled for Wednesday. After Tuesday’s negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by the two sides, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands for ending the war were becoming “more realistic”.

Hopes for diplomatic progress to end the war rose after Zelenskyy acknowledged Tuesday in the most explicit terms yet that Ukraine is unlikely to realise its goal of joining NATO. Putin has long depicted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia.

Lavrov welcomed Zelenskyy’s comment and said “the businesslike spirit” starting to surface in the talks “gives hope that we can agree on this issue”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to Congress by video at the Capitol in Washington.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to the United States Congress by video at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on March 16 [Sarah Silbiger, Pool via AP]

“A neutral status is being seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Lavrov said on Russian TV.

“There are concrete formulations that in my view are close to being agreed.”

Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said the sides were discussing a possible compromise for a Ukraine with a smaller, non-aligned military.

However, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak denied Russian claims Ukraine was open to adopting a model of neutrality comparable to Sweden or Austria. Podolyak said Ukraine needs powerful allies and “clearly defined security guarantees” to keep it safe.

Earlier in a speech to the United States Congress by video link, Zelenskyy appealed for tougher sanctions on Russia and more weapons to help his country.

He invoked the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour and quoted Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine – a move western countries including the US have decided against.

US President Joe Biden later announced the US will be sending more anti-aircraft, anti-armour weapons and drones and called Putin a “war criminal” while talking to reporters. The Kremlin spokesman said the comment was “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric”.

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