As Russian troops killed more than 10,000 civilians over the past six weeks in their unsuccessful fight to capture the strategic southern port of Mariupol, the city’s major said this morning that corpses are now “carpeted through the streets” of the regional hub.
He spoke as western powers warned Tuesday of a continuing build-up for a suspected Russian assault in Ukraine’s east.
The UK Ministry of Defence said Russian forces are continuing to pull out of Belarus to support operations in eastern Ukraine, focused on the Donbas region, where Russian-allied separatists have claimed independence.
“Fighting in eastern Ukraine will intensify over the next two to three weeks as Russia continues to refocus its efforts there.”UK Ministry of Defence
“Russian attacks remain focused on Ukrainian positions near Donetsk and Luhansk with further fighting around Kherson and Mykolaiv and a renewed push toward Kramatorsk.”
The south-eastern port city of Mariupol has seen some of the heaviest attacks and civilian suffering in the six-week war, but the land, sea and air assaults by Russian forces fighting to capture it have increasingly limited information on circumstances inside the city.
Speaking to various media outlets, Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko accused Russian forces of having blocked weeks of attempted humanitarian convoys into the city in part to conceal the carnage.
Mr Boychenko said the death toll in Mariupol alone could surpass 20,000.
He also gave new details of allegations by Ukrainian officials that Russian forces have taken mobile cremation equipment to Mariupol to dispose of the corpses of victims of the siege.
Russian forces have taken many bodies to a huge shopping centre where there are storage facilities and refrigerators, Mr Boychenko said.
“Mobile crematoriums have arrived in the form of trucks – you open it, and there is a pipe inside and these bodies are burned.”Mariupol’s mayor
He spoke from a location in Ukrainian-controlled territory but outside Mariupol.
The mayor said he had several sources for his description of the alleged methodical burning of bodies by Russian forces in the city.
The discovery of large numbers of apparently executed civilians after Russian forces retreated from cities and towns around the capital, Kyiv, already has prompted widespread condemnation and claims that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.
US officials also point to further signs that Russia’s military is gearing up for a major offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, switching its focus after Russian forces failed in their initial drive to capture Kyiv.
Donbas has been torn by fighting between Russian-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces since 2014, and Russia has recognised the separatists’ claims of independence.
Military strategists say Russian leaders appear to hope local support, logistics and terrain in Donbas favour Russia’s larger and better-armed military, potentially allowing Russian troops to gain more territory and weaken Ukraine’s fighting forces.
Russia has appointed a seasoned general to lead its renewed push in the eastern Donbas region.
A senior US defence official on Monday described a long Russian convoy now rolling toward the eastern city of Izyum with artillery, aviation and infantry support, as part of redeployment for what appears to be the looming Russian campaign.
More artillery is being deployed near the city of Donetsk, while ground combat units that withdrew from around the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas appear destined for refitting and resupplying before they position in Donbas, said the official.
With their offensive in many parts of the country thwarted, Russian forces have relied increasingly on bombarding cities, a strategy that has flattened many urban areas and killed thousands of people.
The UN children’s agency said nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children have fled their homes in the six weeks since Russia’s invasion began.
The United Nations has verified 142 children have been killed and 229 injured, though the actual numbers are likely to be much higher.
Ukrainian authorities accuse Russian forces of committing atrocities, including a massacre in the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, airstrikes on hospitals and a missile attack that killed at least 57 people last week at a train station.
In Bucha, the work of exhuming bodies from a mass grave in a churchyard resumed.
Galyna Feoktistova waited for hours in the cold and rain in hopes of identifying her 50-year-old son, who was shot and killed more than a month ago, but eventually she went home for some warmth.
“He’s still there,” her surviving son, Andriy, said.
In Mariupol, about 120,000 civilians are in dire need of food, water, warmth and communications, the mayor said.
Only those residents who have passed the Russian “filtration camps” are released from the city, Boychenko said.
Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are confiscating passports from Ukrainian citizens, then moving them to the camps in Ukraine’s separatist-controlled east before sending them to distant, economically depressed areas in Russia.
Mr Boychenko said on Monday that those who did not pass the “filtering” have been moved to improvised prisons. He said 33,000 people or more have been taken to Russia or separatist territory in Ukraine.
Russian has denied moving people against their will.
President Volodymyr Zelensky warned Ukrainians that Russia might use chemical weapons in Mariupol.
“We take this as seriously as possible,” Mr Zelensky said in his nightly address on Monday.
Western leaders warned even before Russian troops moved into Ukraine that Russia could resort to unconventional weapons there, particularly chemical agents.
A Russia-allied separatist official, Eduard Basurin, appeared to urge their use Monday, telling Russian state TV that Russian-backed forces should seize a giant metals plant in Mariupol from Ukrainian forces by first blocking all the exits out of the factory.
“And then we’ll use chemical troops to smoke them out of there,” he said.
A Ukrainian regiment, without evidence, also claimed Monday that a drone had dropped a poisonous substance in Mariupol. It indicated there were no serious injuries.
Response from UK
The use of chemical weapons in Ukraine “will get a response and all options are on the table for what that response could be”, UK defence minister James Heappey said this morning.
He said that any response “would certainly be effective, but it would also be well considered”.
The minister told Sky News: “It’s important to recognise that there are all sorts of ways in which these things could be used, from the use of tear gas which is effectively a riot-control measure, all the way through to utterly devastating lethal chemical weapons systems, so I don’t think it’s helpful to be too binary about the situation because these are highly nuanced.
“But I also think it’s very important to be very clear with your viewers, who I think have a deep sense of what is right and what is wrong, that there are some things that are beyond the pale and the use of chemical weapons will get a response, and all options are on the table for what that response could be.”
If chemical weapons “are used at all then President Putin should know that all possible options are on the table in terms of how the West might respond”, Heappey said.
He told Sky News: “We know that there are reports of the use of chemical weapons. We have not been able to verify those ourselves, and indeed the Ukrainian system, as you’ve seen from President Zelensky, are only referring to the fact that there are reports, they themselves haven’t yet been able to confirm to us that they have been used.”
Mr Heappey added: “These are appalling weapons to even think about using and the fact that they are part of the discussion is deeply sobering. It’s not just the president of the United States, the president of France and our own Prime Minister have also been clear that there are weapons that simply should not be used and if they are used people will be held to account.
“I think it’s useful to maintain some ambiguity.. over exactly what the response would be, but let’s be clear, if they are used at all then President Putin should know that all possible options are on the table in terms of how the West might respond.”