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Ukrainian, Russian Delegations Hold Face-To-Face Talks In Istanbul

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Russian and Ukrainian delegations are holding face-to-face talks in Istanbul, the first such contact between the two sides in more than two weeks, after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukraine was prepared to declare its neutrality and consider a compromise on contested areas in the country’s east to secure peace.

Earlier talks between the sides, both in-person and in videoconference calls, failed to make progress.

Ahead of the talks, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told the delegations in a televised speech that progress in negotiations would pave the way for a meeting between Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan said the time has come for talks to yield concrete results and called for an immediate cease-fire, saying that “stopping this tragedy” was up to both sides.

Zelenskiy has said Ukraine’s priorities at the talks will be “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Ukraine will be “looking for peace, really, without delay,” he said in his nightly address late on March 27. Repeating earlier statements, Zelenskiy said the offer of security guarantees would include keeping Ukraine nuclear-free.

He told the reporters that the issue of neutrality — and agreeing to stay out of NATO — should be put to Ukrainian voters in a referendum after Russian troops withdraw. He said a vote could take place within a few months of the troops leaving.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said a cease-fire was the most his country could hope for from the talks. “We are not trading people, land, or sovereignty,” Kuleba said.

More than four weeks into its unprovoked invasion, Russia has failed to seize any major Ukrainian city and signaled on March 25 it was scaling back its ambitions to focus on securing the Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian Army for the past eight years.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian military said in its latest update on March 29 that Russian forces keep launching missile strikes on residential neighborhoods across the country, focusing on targeting fuel-storage compartments in an effort to “complicate logistics” and “create conditions for a humanitarian crisis.”

Fuel depots have reportedly been hit over the past few days in cities such as Kyiv, Lviv, Rivne, Zhytomyr, and Lutsk.

Ukrainian emergency services said at least three people were killed and 22 wounded on March 29 when a rocket struck the regional administration building in the southern port city of Mykolayiv.

krainian officials also said on March 29 that Russian forces carried out a missile strike on the town of Lyubotyn in the northeast Kharkiv region the previous day, flattening several houses and wounding several people.

Russian troops continue attempts to concentrate around Kyiv, the General Staff said on March 28. “Russian troops continue unsuccessful attempts to take positions from which they could attack or surround Kyiv,” the statement said.

Russian forces continue to pose a significant threat to Kyiv through their strike capability even though Ukrainians keep launching localized counterattacks to the northwest of the Ukrainian capital, British military intelligence said on March 29.

A senior U.S. defense official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said Russian forces largely remained in defensive positions near Kyiv and were making little forward progress elsewhere in the country.

The mayor of Irpin, a northwestern Kyiv suburb that has been the site some of the heaviest fighting near the capital, said the city had been “liberated” from Russian troops. Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy later made the same comment in televised remarks.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on March 29 that Russia had agreed to open three humanitarian corridors, including one from Mariupol, to allow civilians to escape battle zones.

Vereshchuk said in a post on Telegram that in the case of Mariupol, which has been besieged for weeks with tens of thousands of people living in dire conditions, people would be able to leave by private cars.

She added that in addition to Mariupol, a safe corridor would be opened leading out of the Russian-occupied town of Melitopol to allow civilians to travel to Zaporizhzhya.

The third corridors will leave the city of Enerhodar and also connect to Zaporizhzhya.

The move comes a day after the two sides failed to open any corridors after Kyiv warned of possible Russian “provocations.”

Russian forces have maintained their offensive on Mariupol with continuous heavy shelling of the besieged port city, the U.K. Defense Ministry said in a statement on March 29. “However, the center of the city remains under Ukrainian control.”

Vadym Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, said the city on the shores of the Sea of Azov was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe and must be completely evacuated.

He said about 160,000 civilians were trapped in the city without power.

Boychenko also said almost 5,000 people had died in the city, including 210 children, since Russia launched its invasion. The figure could not be independently verified.

In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on March 29 again claimed that the main tasks of the first phase of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine had been completed.

Shoigu also claimed that the Russian military killed some 600 foreign fighters over the past two weeks.

It was Shoigu’s second appearance on television in two days after a two-week absence from public view that prompted questions about his whereabouts and his health status.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, said on March 29 that Moscow and Washington would need to eventually have a dialogue on security, but that their relations would inevitably be affected by “personal insults” U.S. President Joe Biden has directed at Putin.

With reporting from AFP, AP, dpa, RFERL, CNN, BBC, and Reuters

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