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Heavy shelling hits civilian areas in Ukraine's second-largest city as Russia steps up assault

The invasion has been causing growing problems for the Kremlin, a development experts have warned may lead Russian President Vladimir Putin to pursue more aggressive tactics.

Russia hit residential areas of Ukraine’s second-largest city with heavy shelling Monday, according to Ukrainian officials, an apparent escalation of the Kremlin’s assault just as officials from both sides met for peace talks.

Videos shared on social media showed explosions across Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million people, shaking apartment buildings and sending smoke billowing into the air. Others showed bodies lying outside apartment buildings and fires burning in the street. NBC News spoke with a resident who said that they were hiding in a bomb shelter during the barrage.

Anton Gerashchenko, a Ukrainian interior ministry adviser, wrote on Facebook that there were "dozens of dead and hundreds of wounded." He posted a video, saying "this horror must be seen by the whole world."

NBC News has verified the videos as authentic, but has not confirmed the number of casualties from the incident.

Oleg Synegubov, the head of the regional administration in Kharkiv, said that 11 people had been killed and dozens more wounded in strikes on residential districts of the city. “This is happening in the daytime, when people have gone out to the pharmacy, for groceries, or for drinking water. It’s a crime,” he told Reuters.

Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians, despite growing accusations from Ukraine and officials across the world.

A school was destroyed as a result of fighting not far from the center of Kharkiv on Monday.Sergey Bobok / AFP - Getty Images

Kharkiv is a majority Russian-speaking city in Ukraine's northeast — precisely the kind of place Putin claims to be liberating from the country's Western-leaning government.

Heavy fighting continues in and around the city, with Russian forces attempting to encircle the major objective and using long-range missile fire in the process, a senior defense official said Monday.

The reports of rocket attacks came as the Ukraine invasion was causing growing problems for the Kremlin, a development experts have warned may lead Russian President Vladimir Putin to pursue more aggressive tactics.

Moscow has poured troops and armor into Ukraine since launching an unprovoked assault on its neighbor last week, but has had its advance slowed by determined resistance from Kyiv’s military and bands of civilians who have joined in to defend their homeland.

Russians have taken to the streets in protest, many of them being arrested by Putin’s security services. And the Russian economy has been tanking in the face of global sanctions and market panic.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Monday that 102 civilians, including seven children, had been killed across Ukraine since Thursday. Those figures were almost certainly an undercount, she said.

Meanwhile, more than a half a million people had fled the country of 44 million in the wake of the Russian attack, the U.N.’s refugee agency said.

Russia says it has only targeted military installations in Ukraine. Although residential areas have undoubtedly been hit too, before Monday Moscow had not resorted to the kind of tactics it deployed in Chechnya around the turn of the millennium and Syria after 2015.

A man looks at a destroyed Ukrainian armored personnel carrier in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 28, 2022.
A destroyed Ukrainian armored personnel carrier in Kharkiv on Monday. Sergey Bobok / AFP - Getty Images

In Chechnya it flattened the city of Grozny and killed thousands of residents; in Syria it has been accused by international watchdogs of deliberately and indiscriminately targeting civilians after coming to the aid of President Bashar al-Assad in the country's bloody civil war.

Russia has always denied targeting civilians in Syria and said its strikes have only been against "terrorist groups," although there has been a wealth of evidence to the contrary from activists, international human rights groups, independent analysts using open-source intelligence and Western officials.

At an emergency meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said that the attacks in Kharkiv had been carried out with "grad multiple rocket launcher systems."

Michael Kofman, the research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a Washington-area think tank, said on Twitter that he expects "the worst is yet ahead, and this war could get a lot more ugly."

Assessing that Russian forces were showing some evidence of changing tack from the strategy that had struggled to make inroads thus far, Kofman said "we’re seeing them open up greater use of fires, strikes, and air power."

The apparent escalation came as cease-fire talks between Russia and Ukraine took place on the Belarusian border Monday. But there appeared little hope for an immediate end to the conflict.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin on Monday and asked the Russian president to stop all strikes against civilians and residential buildings. Putin "confirmed his willingness to commit" to these points, according to a summary of the call from Macron's office.

According to his version of the call, Putin said that Russian forces "do not threaten civilians and do not strike civilian targets," and he accused Ukrainian nationalists of using "the civilian population as a human shield" and "deliberately" placing "weapons systems in residential areas, the Kremlin said in a statement.