KIEV, Ukraine (Dispatches) —Civilians in 2,000 cars fled Mariupol along a humanitarian corridor in what was believed to be the biggest evacuation yet from the besieged seaport.
On the diplomatic front, another round of talks began between Russia and Ukraine via video, and the leaders of three European Union countries — including Poland, a NATO member on Ukraine’s doorstep — planned a visit to the embattled capital in a bold show of support.
With the number of people driven from the country by war eclipsing 3 million, large explosions thundered across Kiev before dawn from what Ukrainian authorities said were artillery strikes, as Russia’s assault on the capital appeared to become more systematic and edged closer to the city center.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said barrages hit four multi-story buildings in the city and killed dozens of people. The shelling ignited a huge fire in a 15-story apartment building and spurred a frantic rescue effort.
The strikes, carried out of the 20th day of the conflict, targeted a western district of Kiev, disrupting a relative calm that returned after an initial advance by Moscow’s forces was stopped in the early days of the war.
The leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia set out for Kiev by train despite the security risks, in a visit EU officials said was not sanctioned by other members of the 27-nation bloc.
“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 fellow Prime Ministers Janez Jansa of Slovenia and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, as well as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s de facto leader.
The UN said at least 636 civilians have been killed and 1,125 wounded in the conflict, with the true figure probably much higher.
The Ukrainian government said new aid and evacuation efforts would take place Tuesday along nine corridors around the country, including the Kiev region. Man past attempts failed amid continued fighting.
One of the most desperate situations is in Mariupol, the port city of 430,000 where local officials estimate a weekslong siege has killed more than 2,300 people and left residents desperate for food, water, heat and medicine.
The Mariupol city council reported that 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.