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Ukraine calls for 'immediate ceasefire' as talks with Russia open******
Russian and Ukrainian officials take part in the talks in Gomel, Belarus, on Monday.
Russia and Ukraine met yesterday for their first talks since the outbreak of war last week, with Kiev demanding an "immediate ceasefire" as the number of refugees fleeing the country hit more than 500,000.
As the delegations arrived for talks on the border between Belarus and Ukraine on day five of Moscow's attack, the Ukrainian presidency demanded the ceasefire "and the withdrawal of troops."
"I do not really believe in the outcome of this meeting, but let them try," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said.
Severe financial sanctions imposed by the West on Moscow showed their impact on financial markets yesterday morning, with the Russian rouble collapsing to a record low and the Russian central bank more than doubling interest rates to 20 percent.
The sanctions targeting the Russian financial sector are intended to change the calculus of Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin, but on the ground the roughly 100,000 Russian troops thought to be inside Ukraine continued their move from the north, east and south.
Western defense officials and the Kiev government say battling Ukrainian troops have kept the country's major cities out of Russian hands despite incursions in the capital Kiev and the second largest city, Kharkiv, over the weekend.
"The Russian occupiers have reduced the pace of the offensive," the general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces said yesterday, again claiming that Moscow had suffered "heavy losses."
The small southern city of Berdyansk has been occupied by Russian soldiers, however, Ukrainian officials said.
In the capital yesterday, after a relatively calm evening, people rushed out to buy food after the lifting of a strict blanket curfew imposed on Saturday, with local forces given shoot-on-sight orders over the weekend.
Amid reports of further Russian troop movements towards Kiev, Moscow said it had now "gained air superiority over the entire territory of Ukraine," while accusing Ukrainian troops of using civilians as human shields.
The UN's refugee agency UNHCR said over half a million people have fled Ukraine since the attack on Thursday.
"More than 500,000 refugees have now fled from Ukraine to neighboring countries," United Nations refugee chief Filippo Grandi said in a tweet.
The grim figure came as talks got under way at the Belarus-Ukraine border yesterday that included Ukraine's defense minister and officials from the two countries.
Kiev had been initially reluctant to send a delegation to Belarus, given the country's role in facilitating Russia's attack on Ukraine by hosting troops and weaponry used in the invasion.
"We definitely have an interest in reaching some agreements as soon as possible," Vladimir Medinsky, an aide to Putin who has traveled to Belarus for the talks, said in televised remarks.
Zelensky meanwhile issued another video address, wearing his now trademark green khaki sweatshirt, calling on the European Union to agree to "the immediate accession of Ukraine via a new special procedure."
The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, gave her support on Sunday in an interview with the Euronews channel, but without specifying a timeframe. "They are one of us and we want them in," she said.
The EU said it would provide 450 million euros (US$500 million) for Ukraine to buy arms, including Russian-made fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots could operate.
It also announced restrictions on Kremlin-run media outlets RT and Sputnik.
Elsewhere, Russia said yesterday it was banning flights by airlines from 36 countries, including Britain and Germany, after many have barred Russian planes.