The besieged port city of Mariupol is under continuous bombardment as Russian forces redouble their efforts to capture it after its leaders refused to surrender, Ukrainian officials said on Tuesday.
The city council said the pounding was turning Mariupol into the “ashes of a dead land”. Russia’s RIA news agency said Russian forces and units of Russian-backed separatists had taken about half of the city, citing a separatist leader.
The plight of civilians in Mariupol, home to 400,000 people before the war, grew ever more desperate. Hundreds of thousands are believed to be trapped inside buildings, with no access to food, water, power or heat.
“There is nothing left there,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address to Italy’s parliament on Tuesday.
Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov told CNN the city was under a full blockade and had received no humanitarian aid.
“The city is under continuous bombing, from 50 bombs to 100 bombs Russian aircraft drops each day…a lot of death, a lot of crying, a lot of awful war crimes,” Orlov said.
Mariupol has become the focus of the war that erupted on Feb. 24 when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops over the border on what he calls a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and replace its pro-Western leadership.
It lies on the Sea of Azov and its capture would allow Russia to link areas in the east held by pro-Russian separatists with the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Having failed to seize the capital Kyiv or any other major city with a swift offensive, Russian forces are waging a war of attrition that has reduced some urban areas to rubble and taken a huge civilian toll.
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva said on Tuesday it had recorded 953 civilian deaths and 1,557 injured since the invasion, although the actual toll was believed to be much higher. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians.
Western officials said on Tuesday Russian forces were stalled around Kyiv but making some progress in the south and east. Ukrainian fighters are repelling Russian troops in some places but cannot roll them back, they said.
The Mariupol city council gave no details of casualties or damage from the latest bombing. A Reuters team that reached a Russian-seized part of the city on Sunday described a wasteland of charred apartment blocks and bodies wrapped in blankets lying by a road.
Ukraine says Russian shells, bombs and missiles have struck a theatre, an art school and other public buildings, burying hundreds of women and children sheltering in cellars.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, speaking on Ukrainian television on Tuesday, demanded the opening of a humanitarian corridor for civilians. She said at least 100,000 people wanted to leave Mariupol but could not.
Referring to Russia’s demand that the city surrender by dawn on Monday, Vereshchuk said: “Our military are defending Mariupol heroically. We did not accept the ultimatum. They offered capitulation under a white flag.”
Kyiv accused Moscow of deporting residents of Mariupol and separatist-held areas of Ukraine to Russia. Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said Kyiv was investigating the “forcible transfer” of 2,389 children to Russia from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Moscow denies forcing people to leave, saying it is taking in refugees.
Ukraine also accused Russia of blocking humanitarian access to Kherson, which lies northwest of Crimea and is the only provincial capital it has captured. The Foreign Ministry said Kherson’s 300,000 residents were running out of food.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Fox News on Tuesday the Russians were frustrated by their lack of progress.
“They did not expect the Ukrainians to fight back this hard. They thought it would be a lot easier to just walk into Kyiv in a couple of days and take the capital city,” he said.
MOURNING HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR
The conflict has forced nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people from their homes, including more than 3.5 million refugees who have fled the country, half of them children.
In his speech to Italian lawmakers, Zelenskiy said the war would bring famine to other countries. Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest grain exporters and the war has caused global prices for staple foods to surge to record levels.
“How can we sow (crops) under the strikes of Russian artillery?” he said.
In an address overnight, Zelenskiy also drew attention to the death of Boris Romanchenko, 96, who survived three Nazi concentration camps during World War Two but was killed when his apartment block in besieged Kharkiv was shelled last week.
In killing Romanchenko, “Putin managed to ‘accomplish’ what even Hitler couldn’t,” Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said.
Within Russia, independent media have been effectively shut down and referring to the “special operation” as a war or invasion is banned.
A Russian court imposed a new nine-year sentence on Tuesday on Alexei Navalny, Putin’s main political opponent, who was already in jail.
There are some signs of dissent. One of the best-known Russian state TV news personalities, Zhanna Agalakova, a foreign correspondent and former Channel One news reader, said in Paris on Tuesday she had quit in protest against the war.
Dmitry Muratov, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in December for fighting for free speech as editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said he would auction his medal to raise money for Ukrainian refugees.