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By Carlos Barria and Mehmet Emin Caliskan

IRPIN, Ukraine (Reuters) -Ukrainians fleeing the town of Irpin just outside Kyiv were caught in shelling by Russian forces on Sunday and forced to dive for cover, Reuters witnesses said.

Irpin, some 25 km (16 miles) northwest of the capital, has seen intense fighting in recent days. Russia's military is closing in on the Kyiv, which was home to around 3.4 million people before the invasion sparked an exodus of civilians.

Irpin residents scurried along pavements clutching children, luggage and pets as they made their way to waiting buses and cars that would take them further from the clashes.

Soldiers and fellow residents helped elderly men and women who were falling behind. Some people crouched down when explosions went off nearby, apparently from mortar rounds.

Reuters reporters did not witness casualties in the shelling, but several news outlets said that at least three people were killed - a woman and two children.

The New York Times published a photograph https://static01.nyt.com/images/2022/03/06/world/06ukraine-briefing-top1/merlin_203332950_e825298f-392e-45f1-ae70-88638a43a640-superJumbo.jpg?quality=75&auto=webp it said was of four members of a family - a woman, a man and two children - lying on the ground in Irpin.

The caption said they were trying to flee when a mortar struck, and that the father, being tended to by Ukrainian soldiers in the image, was the only one still with a pulse.

Reuters could not independently verify what happened.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry said on Sunday it would continue the evacuation of civilians from Irpin after recent shelling of the town and its environs.

The State Emergency Service also said it was setting up tents to provide medical care to all those who needed it.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has driven more than 1.5 million people to flee to neighbouring countries in the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on Sunday.

Millions more have been displaced internally, trying to get to the relative safety of western Ukraine.

BARRICADES AND TRENCHES

In Kyiv itself, Ukrainian soldiers bolstered defences by digging trenches, blocking roads and liaising with civil defence units as Russian forces bombarded the surrounding areas.

While the armed forces and civilian volunteers dug in, thousands of people continued to try to flee the city as fears of a full assault mounted.

Russia has concentrated much of its firepower on the south and east of the country since its assault began on Feb. 24, besieging cities including Mariupol and Kharkiv with shelling and air strikes and causing extensive damage and casualties.

Kyiv has been spared the worst of the fighting so far, but intense battles have raged in neighbouring towns and villages and Russia's defence ministry released footage on Sunday of some of its tracked military vehicles on the move near the capital.

Video provided by Ukraine's armed forces taken on Saturday in the Kyiv region showed Ukrainian efforts to defend the capital, with piles of sandbags and concrete slabs laid across a main road where Ukrainian soldiers checked passing cars.

A smaller road was blocked by metal "hedgehog" anti-tank barriers, and machine gun positions had been erected. Civilians who have vowed to join the battle to protect Kyiv stored dozens of Molotov cocktails.

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a "special operation" designed to destroy its neighbour's military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy remains in Ukraine and has called on his people to defend their country.

Kateryna Laskari, a production company executive, left her home city Kyiv soon after the invasion began.

She reached a small village 50 km (31 miles) away where her family has a house, and has stayed there with her three-year-old son, Simon, her pregnant sister, who is due to give birth in two weeks and their parents.

"Of course, I'm frightened as is everybody, but I have so many people I'm responsible for. I'm responsible for my family, I'm responsible for my business," she told Reuters via Zoom.

"But to tell the truth, I thought I would be even more frightened. Now I feel like a soldier. I feel that I have a lot of energy to just to fight, because I know that we will win."

(Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Kyiv and Aleksandra Michalska in New York. Writing by Mike Collett-White. Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Frances Kerry.)

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