KYIV: Ukraine's leader Volodymyr Zelensky made a fresh appeal for talks with Moscow Saturday, while Russia said its soldiers had entered the centre of besieged port city Mariupol.

As bitter fighting between local forces and Russian troops rages across the country more than three weeks into the invasion, the two sides are already holding negotiations remotely.

But so far, as in previous rounds, the talks have yielded little progress, with both sides blaming the other, and none have been at the presidential level.

"This is the time to meet, to talk, time for renewing territorial integrity and fairness for Ukraine," Zelensky said in a video posted to Facebook.

"Otherwise, Russia's losses will be such, that several generations will not recover."

Russia's offensive remains largely stalled, a US defence official said, with troops about 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of the capital Kyiv and facing heavy resistance.

Fighting in Mariupol city centre: Russian ministry

The official added that Russian forces had made no further progress into the northeastern city of Kharkiv, which they have encircled, and that Ukrainians were also defending the northern city of Chernihiv.

Britain's defence ministry said Russia was struggling to provide its forward troops "with even basic essentials such as food and fuel" because of Ukrainian attacks on their supply lines.

Russians in Mariupol

But Russia's defence ministry said Friday that the army and its separatist allies had made a breakthrough in Mariupol, which has been under Russian shelling for days, and were now inside the city.

"In Mariupol, units of the Donetsk People's Republic, with the support of the Russian armed forces, are squeezing the encirclement and fighting against nationalists in the city centre," the ministry said.

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The mayor of the city confirmed to the BBC that gun battles had reached the heart of Mariupol.

On Friday rescuers were still searching for hundreds of people trapped under the wreckage of a bombed theatre there.

At the time of the attack, Mariupol's city council said that over 1,000 people were sheltering in the theatre's basement when it was hit on Wednesday.

On Friday, the council said one person had been badly wounded, but there were no dead, the only casualty tally given so far.

There was still no information about potential fatalities, Zelensky said, but 130 people had been saved so far -- some "heavily injured".

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9,000 people had been evacuated from Mariupol, he added.

As Putin's ground offensive has met with fierce Ukrainian resistance, Moscow has increasingly turned to indiscriminate air and long-range strikes.

'Difficult day'

In the south of Ukraine, the mayor of Mykolaiv Oleksandr Senkevich said on Facebook that several villages in the region had been occupied and the city had been under heavy fire, calling it a "difficult day".

Ukrainian media reported that Russian forces had carried out a large-scale air strike on Mykolaiv, killing at least 40 Ukrainian soldiers at their brigade headquarters.

Earlier Russian missiles had struck an aircraft repair site close to Lviv's airport in Ukraine's far west, extending the war to a relatively unscathed region near the border with NATO member Poland.

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The Russian defence ministry said the strike was a "high-precision" attack on Ukrainian military infrastructure.

In Kyiv, authorities said one person was killed when a Russian rocket struck residential tower blocks in the northwestern suburbs. They said a school and playground were also hit.

More than 3.25 million refugees have fled Ukraine.

Zelensky accused Russian forces of blocking aid around hotspot areas, saying "they have a strict order to do everything, so the humanitarian catastrophe in Ukrainian cities turned into reason for Ukrainians to work together with the occupiers" -- adding "this is a war crime".

But Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Kyiv of war crimes too in a call with French President Emmanuel Macron, and said Moscow was doing "everything possible" to avoid civilian deaths.

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Russia further isolated

With world powers manoeuvring to respond to the bloody three-week invasion, Washington said that President Joe Biden had warned Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping of the "consequences" of any support for Russia.

The United States fears that China could deliver financial and military aid to Moscow, transforming an already explosive transatlantic standoff into a global confrontation.

In the nearly two-hour phone call, Xi said that war is "in no one's interest", but showed no sign of giving in to US pressure to join Western condemnation of Russia.

However, Moscow's diplomatic isolation deepened as Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats, following in the steps of Bulgaria.

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The International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other top global lenders warned on Friday that the "devastating human catastrophe" unfolding in Ukraine risks "extensive" economic fallout around the globe.

Historically, Ukraine has been a grain-exporting breadbasket for the world.

"The entire global economy will feel the effects of the crisis through slower growth, trade disruptions, and steeper inflation," the lenders said.

Italy announced Friday it would tax the extra profits made by energy firms off the back of spiking prices and Belgium delayed by a decade a plan to scrap nuclear energy in 2025, also spooked by the huge spike.

Undeterred by reports of military setbacks or international condemnation, Putin held a large triumphalist rally in a Moscow football stadium on Friday featuring a sea of Russian flags, pro-Kremlin pop stars and chants of "Russia! Russia! Russia!"

Marking eight years since Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, tens of thousands of people took part, many wearing ribbons with the letter "Z" that features on Russian tanks invading Ukraine.

Putin said the Russian military was in Ukraine "to rid these people from their suffering and genocide".

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Negotiations stalled

For many Ukrainians, Russia's actions on the ground and from the air make a mockery of that justification, and of the stop-start peace talks that have been proceeding this week.

But in a call to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin accused Ukrainian authorities of stalling talks by "putting forward more and more unrealistic proposals".

"Nevertheless, the Russian side is ready to continue to search for solutions in line with its well-known principled approaches," the Kremlin said.

Russia wants Ukraine to disarm and disavow all Western alliances -- steps that Kyiv says would turn it into a vassal state of Moscow.

Russia's top negotiator said Friday that Moscow and Kyiv had brought their positions "as close as possible" on a proposal for Ukraine to become a neutral state.

But Mikhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky taking part in the negotiations, said his country's position had not budged.

"All statements are intended, inter alia, to provoke tension in the media," he wrote on Twitter.


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