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Ukraine cities face intense shelling as Russian convoy closes in on Kyiv

Facing fierce resistance on the ground, Moscow appeared to ramp up its assault from the air, which Ukraine and international watchdogs said was increasingly hitting civilians.
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Hours after Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused Russia of war crimes and "state terrorism" Tuesday, he received a standing ovation from the European Parliament as he vowed to keep fighting for his nation's freedom.

His words caused a a translator to choke up during the speech, which was delivered by video link.

Earlier in the day, an intensifying Russian assault pounded the heart of Ukraine's second-largest city, fueling fears that civilians would bear the brunt of the attack.

Russia hit major cities across Ukraine with increasingly heavy shelling as the conflict escalated on its sixth day. Meanwhile, a vast convoy of Russian forces threatened the capital, Kyiv. Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs said Russian forces hit a television tower in the city Tuesday, killing five people.

In a video message, Zelenskyy vowed to defend Kyiv and sought to rally both his country and the international community against what he called “outright, undisguised terror” from Moscow.

"No one will forgive. Nobody will forget," he said.

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In a tweet Tuesday, Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, invoked the barbarism of the Holocaust, highlighting that the TV tower is located beside Babi Yar, a Kyiv ravine where Nazi Germany committed atrocities during World War II.

“To the world: What is the point of saying ‘Never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed,” Zelenskyy said. “History repeating…”

International condemnation and crippling sanctions have turned the Kremlin into a virtual pariah. Moscow now confronts a spiraling economy and determined resistance from Ukrainian forces.

President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. will close its airspace to Russian aircraft at his State of the Union address. The European Union previously took a similar step.

U.S. officials said they feared Russian President Vladimir Putin, frustrated by his military’s struggles, may resort to even more brutal violence amid one of the most intense military conflicts in Europe since World War II.

Facing fierce resistance on the ground, Moscow appeared to ramp up its assault from the air, which Ukraine and international watchdogs said was increasingly hitting civilians.

Ukraine said Kharkiv, its second-largest city, was coming under intensifying shelling from Russian forces, accusing them of war crimes for striking residential districts and government buildings in the city of around 1.5 million people.

A missile hit Kharkiv’s Freedom Square — Ukraine’s largest plaza and the nucleus of public life for the city — early Tuesday in what officials said was a deadly Russian attack.Pavel Dorogoy / AP

A massive explosion hit the Regional State Administration building early Tuesday, according to videos shared on social media and Ukrainian officials. Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said it was caused by a Russian airstrike on the city and later said at least seven people were killed and 24 wounded.

Video posted on the service's Telegram channel showed the square in front of the building covered in piles of debris, with the windows of surrounding buildings blown out. Rescuers worked to reach people buried under rubble inside the building.

NBC News has verified the videos are authentic but has not confirmed the number of people killed. Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of hitting residential districts, and Russia has consistently denied targeting civilians.

“All the time we hear the bombing and shooting and we don’t know how to sleep and what will … how we will live tomorrow,” said Yasmina Vladimirovich, a 31-year-old teacher living near the center of the city. In a video sent to NBC News, she said she had spent the night in her basement with her 5-month-old baby.

The strikes came after Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of targeting civilian areas in the city Monday, even as the first talks between the countries were taking place. Zelenskyy said he believed Russia stepped up its shelling to force his hand in the talks, which ended with no immediate breakthrough.

Western officials have said they think Putin's aim is to remove Zelenskyy's government and replace it with a Kremlin-friendly regime as part of a bid to restore Russia's influence over its neighbors.

But seeking to tighten his country’s bond with the West, which has backed Kyiv with weapons and equipment while hitting Moscow with fierce sanctions, Zelenskyy signed an application for his country to join the European Union.

In a speech Tuesday, he pleaded with E.U. lawmakers to "prove to us that you are with us." The lawmakers gave Zelenskyy a standing ovation after his remarks on the video call.

'The heart of our country'

In a sign of the battle to come, Zelenskyy said defending the capital was a priority.

"If we defend Kyiv, we defend the country," he said in a video message released on Telegram. "Kyiv is the heart of our country, and it must beat. And it will fight for its life to win."

Satellite images captured by an American firm, Maxar Technologies, showed what it said was a convoy of Russian tanks and armored vehicles 17 miles from the center of the city and stretching for about 40 miles.

Russia's advance on Ukraine's capital has made little progress in the past 24 hours due to logistical difficulties, Britain's Defense Ministry said Tuesday. The convoy seemed to be advancing more slowly than expected partly because of fuel and food shortages, a senior U.S. defense official said Tuesday.

“It is not exactly moving with great speed,” the official told NBC News. “They continue to be bogged down coming down from the north to get to Kyiv.”

Moscow had also increased its use of artillery north of Kyiv and around Kharkiv and Chernihiv, according to the Defense Ministry update posted on Twitter.

The key southern port city of Mariupol came under a constant barrage of shelling Tuesday, the city's mayor said, adding that the attacks had killed women and children as well as damaged infrastructure, including schools and homes.

To the west, shelling hit residential buildings in the strategic city of Kherson, Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said in a post on social media. Ukrainian authorities say Russian forces have blocked off Kherson, a major port on the Black Sea.

NBC News has not verified those claims.

The American official said the U.S. could not declare whether Russia has taken over Kherson, explaining the city remained contested. Russian forces are close enough to Mariupol that they can attack with long-range fires, the U.S. official said.

The fighting across Ukraine has forced around 660,000 people to flee to neighboring countries, according to figures released Tuesday by the U.N. refugee agency. The U.N. human rights office said it has recorded the deaths of 136 civilians so far, adding that the real toll is believed to be far higher.

After the International Criminal Court said it will open an investigation into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity during the conflict, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected accusations of war crimes by Russian forces.

Civilians cross a river on a blown up bridge on Kyiv's northern front on March 1, 2022
Civilians cross a river Tuesday on a damaged bridge on Kyiv's northern front.Aris Messinia / AFP - Getty Images

In a call with reporters, Peskov also vowed that Western sanctions — measures that sent the ruble plunging and led Moscow's central bank to close its stock market — will never get Russia to change its position on Ukraine.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, issued a stark warning against further sanctions from the West.

“Don’t forget that in human history, economic wars quite often turned into real ones,” he tweeted in response to a French official’s comments.