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Russian tanks lie just miles from Kyiv as those who can’t flee prepare for their nightmare to arrive


Kyiv – The day in Kyiv ended as it began. Bombing, air raids sirens and panic.

As this article is published, there is a sense that the early hours of Thursday morning were a mere appetiser for President Vladimir Putin, and soon he will have his main course by striking government and military buildings in the centre of the capital. A long night three floors underground in the hotel basement awaits.

There is a sense of inevitability here. It’s not a question of if the Russian tanks arrive, but when.

According to some that could be as soon as Thursday evening. They are less than 20 miles away after all.

Awoken by the sound of distant shelling at around 5am, Kyiv residents got in their cars and rushed to as safe a place as possible.

Illiya left around 2pm, with his two daughters Angela, 17, and Barbara, 13. He drove them around 100 miles north to stay with their uncle. It’s not as safe as being out of Ukraine, but it’s better than being in Kyiv, or many of the other cities that were pummelled by Russia throughout the day.

“We have got them to their uncle’s house,” said Illiya. “So, they’re safer for sure. The next step is to try and get them to their sister’s home in Geneva. I don’t know what me and their mother will do after that. We have a paralysed elderly mother to look after in Kyiv.”

Illiya evacuated his daughters Angela, 17, and Barbara, 13, before returning to await what comes

On his return drive to the city Illiya passed “around 30 tanks” sitting around 20 miles from the centre.

This eyewitness information tallies with the official reports given throughout the day. Reports came through of around 38 Russian tanks approaching Kyiv after crossing the Belarus border.

The mood is one of resignation. Whether the tanks are sitting in Maidan – or Independence Square – on Friday morning or not, they are coming.

Last night’s all-encompassing attacks have weakened Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, and Kyiv is wide open.

The prospect of the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II does not look like a threat any longer. It is reality.

Explosions were heard in cities across the country in the early hours, including in the capital Kyiv, in Kharkiv in the north-east, Odessa in the south, and the eastern Donetsk Oblast area.

At least 18 people were killed in a missile attack on the port city of Odessa, according to regional authorities, while the mayor of Brovary said that six people had been killed there.

Sightings of Russian troop landings were also reported in Mariupol and Odessa on the southern coast.

As dawn broke, martial law was imposed, and the Ukrainian troops began to arrive from lunchtime. Wave after wave of trucks loaded with soldiers passed, blaring their sirens as they went.

Ukrainian military service members guard a road that leads to a government block after the beginning of the invasion (Photo: Reuters)

Schools, and many of the shops and restaurants, were shut. While many heeded pleas to stay calm and at home, you only had to see the length of the traffic queues heading west out of the city to know tens of thousands were not prepared to rally to the “we are strong” messages coming from President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Nikolai, a translator, said he had got his family packed up and 400 miles away, far into the countryside, two nights ago. “I could see what was going to happen,” he said. “If I hadn’t got my family away then I wouldn’t be here now.”

In a broadcast to the nation just after the first wave of missiles, Mr Zelensky appealed for blood donations for wounded soldiers. To emphasise the desperate situation this nation finds itself in, he went on to call on anyone who was able to come and join the fight.

Mr Zelensky said Ukraine was conscripting citizens aged 18-60 to its army reserves and gave permission for all civilians to carry firearms. This strategy – the only one available to the President – means that when the Russian troops do march into Kyiv, we can expect a guerrilla war of the kind we’ve never seen in the west. Many will die.

A view of the debris of a house and a burned car in the aftermath of Russian shelling, outside Kyiv (Photo: AP)

“We are defending our country, we fight for our country and we protect our country,” Mr Zelensky told 44 million Ukranians.

“We will give weapons to anyone who wants to defend the country. Be ready to support Ukraine in the squares of our cities,” he later tweeted.

During the bombings in the capital, those not already in their cars or hunkered down at home were in the underground metro stations, or basements. There are bomb shelters, but few of these are believed to be up to the task of dealing with a man with Mr Putin’s firepower.

The queues at bus stops, petrol stations and cash machines run around the block, and people rushed to stock up on food.

Later in the day shelling began in the Ukrainian villages of Kopani and Kherson, where Ukrainian soldiers are engaged in battle.

Russia has seized control of Hostomel military airport in Kyiv with attack helicopters, just 15 minutes west of the capital ring road.

In a chilling sign, fires could be seen burning around government buildings in what observers suspected was the destroying of sensitive documents. Nations only do that if they know the enemy is coming.

Many Ukrainians fled westwards today – including these civilians from Donetsk – in the wake of the invasion (Photo: AP)

After another missile attack hit the Obolon area of Kyiv, the air raid sirens sounded again at just after 3pm. Four cruise missiles were reported to be heading to Kyiv from Belarus.

Minutes later another boom, and black smoke was seen rising over the Ukrainian defence ministry intelligence headquarters in the city centre.

On the ground, we do not know for certain where the other three missiles landed. In fact, we do not know how Russian tanks and troops will operate if they arrive. Will they sit in peace, confident in the fact that they have taken the Ukrainian capital?

Or will they reap the sort of fury upon a terrified population that Mr Putin’s words indicate is his wish. Who will die and who will be permitted to live?

During the time taken to write this dispatch, at least three booms could be heard rocking another part of the city. Those booms are getting a little louder as the targets edge closer to this keyboard.

We will see what the night holds, and what the morning delivers.

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