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Ready to talk if Ukraine Army 'lays down arms', says Russia

Ready to talk if Ukraine Army lays down arms, says Russia
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Kyiv/Moscow: Russia does not plan to "occupy" Ukraine and is ready to hold negotiations soon after the Ukrainian forces "lay down their arms" in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's call, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday.

The Russian top diplomat made the remarks following talks with Deputy Foreign Minister of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) Sergey Peresada and Foreign Minister of the Lugansk People's Republic (LPR) Vladislav Deinego

"No one is going to occupy Ukraine. The aim of the operation has been openly declared: demilitarising and denazifying, he said, a day after Russian troops launched a massive military operation against Ukraine.

President Putin signed treaties with leaders of DPR and LPR on February 21, recognising the two regions of Ukraine as independent.

No one will abuse the Ukrainian soldiers, who can return to their families after ending hostilities, he told reporters.

On Friday, Russian troops bore down on Ukraine's capital with gunfire and explosions resonating ever closer to the government quarter, in an invasion of a democratic country that has fueled fears of a wider war in Europe and triggered worldwide efforts to make Russia stop.

Amid growing casualties from the deadly warfare including shelling that sliced through the facade of a Kyiv apartment building, bridges and schools, the Kremlin said Russia was ready to talk with Ukrainian officials.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov's comments came soon after Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that he is willing to discuss a non-aligned status for Ukraine.

Zelenskyy's statement indicated that he would be willing to negotiate dropping his country's bid to join US-led NATO, a key demand of Putin.

That came even as there were also increasing signs that Vladimir Putin's Russia may be seeking to overthrow Ukraine's government, in his boldest effort yet to redraw the world map and revive Moscow's Cold War-era influence.

When Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping stressed that both Moscow and Kyiv should resolve the raging crisis through talks, Putin told him that he was ready to hold "high-level negotiations" with Ukraine.

Xi, whose government stonewalled criticism in the last few days for not condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sought to play the role of a peacemaker by saying that China supports Russia and Ukraine to solve the issue through negotiation.

Noting that the recent situation in eastern Ukraine has changed dramatically, causing great concern in the international community, Xi told Putin that China's position on the Ukraine issue was based on the merits of the matter concerned.

In an apparent criticism directed against the United States and the European Union, Xi urged all parties to completely abandon the Cold War mindset, respect and attach importance to each other's legitimate security concerns and strive for a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through dialogue and negotiation.

The US and other global powers slapped ever-tougher sanctions on Russia as the invasion reverberated through the world's economy and energy supplies, threatening to further squeeze ordinary households. UN officials said they were preparing for millions to flee Ukraine. Sporting authorities sought to punish Russia on global playing fields. And NATO leaders called an urgent meeting to discuss how far they can go to challenge Putin without engaging Russian forces in a direct war.

The Council of Europe suspended Russia from the continent's human rights organisation. The 47-nation council announced Friday that Russia was suspended with immediate effect from the organisation's Committee of Ministers and parliamentary assembly on Friday as a result of the Russian Federation's armed attack on Ukraine.

Day 2 of Russia's invasion focused on the Ukrainian capital, where explosions were heard starting before dawn and gunfire was reported in several areas. Ukrainian authorities used armoured vehicles and snowplows to defend Kyiv and limit movement, and said Russian spies were seeking to infiltrate the city.

Russia's military said it had seized a strategic airport outside Kyiv that allows it to quickly build up forces to take the capital.

It claimed to have already cut the city off from the west, the direction many of those escaping the invasion are heading in, with lines of cars snaking toward the Polish border.

Intense fire broke out on a bridge across the Dneiper River dividing the eastern and western sides of Kyiv, with about 200 Ukrainian forces establishing defensive positions and taking shelter behind their armored vehicles and later under the bridge.

Ukrainian officials reported at least 137 deaths on the Ukrainian side and claimed hundreds on the Russian one. Russian authorities released no casualty figures, and it was not possible to verify the tolls.

UN officials reported 25 civilian deaths, mostly from shelling and airstrikes, and said that 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes and estimated up to 4 million could flee if the fighting escalates.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded with Russia's government to hold talks, and with Western powers to act faster to cut off Russia's economy and provide Ukraine military help.

When bombs fall on Kyiv, it happens in Europe, not just in Ukraine, he said. When missiles kill our people, they kill all Europeans.

Zelenskyy's whereabouts were kept secret, after he told European leaders that he was No. 1 on Russia's list of targets.

He also offered to negotiate on one of Putin's key demands: that Ukraine declare itself neutral and abandon its ambition of joining NATO. And the Kremlin responded that Russia was ready to send a delegation to Belarus to discuss that.

After denying for weeks he planned to invade, Putin argued that the West left him no other choice by refusing to negotiate on Russia's security demands.

The autocratic leader hasn't said what his ultimate plans for Ukraine are. Lavrov gave a hint, saying Friday: We want to allow the Ukrainian people to determine its own fate. His spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia recognizes Zelenskyy as Ukraine's president, but wouldn't say how long the Russian military operation could last.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Kyiv could well be under siege" in what US officials believe is a brazen attempt by Putin to install his own regime.

With social media amplifying a torrent of military claims and counter-claims, it was difficult to determine exactly what was happening on the ground.

The assault, anticipated for weeks by the US and Western allies, amounts to the largest ground war in Europe since World War II. After repeatedly denying plans to invade, the autocratic Putin launched his attack on the country, which has increasingly tilted toward the democratic West and away from Moscow's sway.

The invasion began early Thursday with a series of missile strikes on cities and military bases, and then quickly followed with a multi-pronged ground assault that rolled troops in from several areas in the east; from the southern region of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014; and from Belarus to the north.

After Ukrainian officials said they lost control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, scene of the world's worst nuclear disaster, Russia said Friday it was working with the Ukrainians to secure the plant. There was no corroboration of such cooperation from the Ukrainian side.

As Western leaders rushed to condemn and punish Russia, US President Joe Biden announced new sanctions that will target Russian banks, oligarchs, state-controlled companies and high-tech sectors, saying Putin chose this war and had exhibited a sinister view of the world in which nations take what they want by force. He added that the measures were designed not to disrupt global energy markets. Russian oil and natural gas exports are vital energy sources for Europe.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced sanctions, freezing the assets of all large Russian banks and planning to bar Russian companies and the Kremlin from raising money on British markets.

Now we see him for what he is a bloodstained aggressor who believes in imperial conquest, Johnson said of Putin.

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