Russian forces press on Kiev and surround Mariupol

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Kyiv (AFP) – Russian forces headed towards Kyiv on Saturday and pounded civilian areas in other Ukrainian cities as concerns grew over the beleaguered southern port of Mariupol, where officials said more than 1,500 people had been killed.

Air raid sirens sounded in several cities on Saturday, including the capital Kiev, Odessa, Dnipro and Kharkiv, according to Ukrainian media.

More than two weeks after Moscow shocked the world by invading Ukraine, the United Nations and others have said it may commit war crimes in cities like Mariupol, which for days has been under attack by the forces of Vladimir Putin.

The survivors tried to flee the Russian bombardments in a freezing city without water or heating and short of food. The situation is “desperate”, said an official from Doctors Without Borders.

“Hundreds of thousands of people … are under siege for all intents and purposes,” Stephen Cornish, one of the medical charity’s Ukraine operation managers, told AFP.

“Sieges are a medieval practice that was banned by modern rules of warfare for good reason.”

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky said they were trying to organize evacuations from besieged towns, but Russian forces were disrupting the effort.

“Mariupol remains blockaded by the enemy. Russian troops did not let our help into the city and continue to torture our people, our residents of Mariupol,” Zelensky said in a video address late Friday.

“Tomorrow we will try again. Again, send food, water and medicine for our city.”

Russia invades Ukraine Kenan AUGEARDAFP

As Russia expands its bombardment and talks between Moscow and Kiev seem to be going nowhere, Zelensky’s calls for NATO intervention have grown increasingly desperate.

On Friday, US President Joe Biden again ruled out direct action against nuclear-armed Russia, warning it would lead to “World War III”.

Instead, Washington added several layers of sanctions to those already crippling the Russian economy, this time ending normal trade relations and announcing a ban on vodka, seafood and diamonds.

The United States and the European Union have also suspended the export of their luxury goods to Russia.

“Putin must pay the price. He cannot pursue a war that threatens the very foundation of international peace and stability and then seek help from the international community,” Biden said from the White House.

He spoke as the United Nations said 2.5 million people had now fled Ukraine and around two million more had been internally displaced by the war.

“No one bury them”

Yulia, a 29-year-old teacher who fled Mariupol, said her mother-in-law was still there and told them “the attacks don’t stop”.

“There are a lot of corpses in the street and no one is burying them,” she told AFP.

In a video address released on Saturday, Zelensky called on Russian mothers to prevent their sons from being sent to war.

“I want to say this once again to Russian mothers, especially mothers of conscripts. Do not send your children to war in a foreign country,” he said.

Zelensky said more than 12,000 Russian soldiers were killed during the invasion. US estimates put the Russian death toll at between 2,000 and 4,000, while Moscow’s only official toll, announced last week, put 498 Russian soldiers killed.

In Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, doctors at a hospital described spending two days pumping ashes from the stomach of an eight-year-old child whose home was destroyed by a Russian missile.

An elderly woman receives help after entering southeastern Poland from Ukraine at the Medyka border crossing
An elderly woman receives help after entering southeastern Poland from Ukraine at the Medyka border crossing Louisa GOULIAMAKIAFP

“He still has ashes in his lungs,” Dima Kasyanov’s doctor told AFP.

Dnipro, an industrial hub of a million people, saw its image as a relatively safe haven shattered when three missiles hit civilian buildings on Friday.

Images of its charred or destroyed buildings – including a kindergarten with blown windows – now join those of Kharkiv and Mariupol as testimony to the brutal conflict.

“Today we were supposed to welcome people who need a lot of support,” said Svetlana Kalenecheko, who lives and works in a clinic that was damaged.

“Now we can’t help anyone.”

The attacks on civilians sparked a fresh wave of warnings from The Hague and the United Nations on Friday that Russia is committing war crimes.

“We are truly headed for an unimaginable tragedy,” warned Cornish, of Doctors Without Borders, insisting that “there is still time to avoid it, and we must see it avoided.”

‘Disaster’

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is slowly encircling Kiev, with Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak calling it a “besieged city”.

He tweeted that he was “ready to fight”, with checkpoints prepared and supply lines in place, adding: “Kiev will hold out until the end”.

This Maxar satellite image taken and released on March 11, 2022 shows a long line of cars on the highway as residents attempt to leave Kyiv
This Maxar satellite image taken and released on March 11, 2022 shows a long line of cars on the highway as residents attempt to leave Kyiv – Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies/AFP

Ukraine’s military said Russia was trying to destroy Kyiv’s defenses to the north and west, where suburbs like Irpin and Bucha have already suffered days of heavy shelling.

Russian armored vehicles are also advancing towards the northeast of the capital.

As the slow but steady advance continues, the wave of refugees also increases.

About 100,000 people have been able to leave the city of Sumy in the northeast, the city of Izyum in the east, and areas northwest of Kyiv in the past two days, Ukrainian officials said. .

Zelensky warned that living conditions were rapidly deteriorating.

“In the regions of Sumy, Kiev and Donetsk, there is no more electricity. Yes, there are problems with heating. There is no gas or water,” he said.

“It’s a humanitarian catastrophe.”

“Murderers of Syria”

Foreign fighters have already entered the Ukrainian conflict from both sides, and on Friday the Kremlin stepped up efforts to bring in reinforcements, including from Syria.

A furious Zelensky accused Russia of hiring “murderers from Syria, a country where everything has been destroyed…like they are doing to us here.”

A tank of the Ukrainian military forces seen in the Lugansk region on March 11, 2022
A tank of the Ukrainian military forces seen in the Lugansk region on March 11, 2022 Anatolii Stepanov AFP

In southern Ukraine, Russian soldiers abducted the mayor of Melitopol, which Zelensky said was a “sign of weakness” and a “crime against democracy”.

The global ripple effects of the conflict continued elsewhere.

Last-minute Russian demands related to the conflict threatened to derail the near-complete process of reviving the Iran nuclear deal on Friday.

And the fighting has spurred wishes to strengthen the European Union’s defences, with European leaders describing the invasion as a wake-up call.

“It is undeniable that two weeks ago we woke up in another Europe, in another world,” said European Council President Charles Michel.

A child is carried by a woman as Ukrainian refugees walk to an assembly point after entering Poland at the Medyka border crossing
A child is carried by a woman as Ukrainian refugees walk to an assembly point after entering Poland at the Medyka border crossing Louisa GOULIAMAKIAFP

Russia also moved on Friday to block Instagram and initiate criminal proceedings against its owner Meta, as Moscow hit back at the tech giant for allowing posts calling for violence against Russian forces.

“We will not fight”

Talks have so far made no progress towards ending the fighting.

Putin said negotiations were happening “almost daily”, but US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking in Bucharest, said the Russian leader had shown “no signs of commitment to serious diplomacy”.

At the United Nations, Western countries have accused Russia of spreading “wild” conspiracy theories after Moscow’s envoy told diplomats that America and Ukraine had researched the use of bats. mice to wage biological warfare.

The US envoy said Russia made the allegations as part of a “false flag effort” for using its own chemical weapons in Ukraine.

Biden has warned that Russia will pay a “high price” if it uses chemical weapons.

“We will not wage a war against Russia in Ukraine,” he said.

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