Ukrainian authorities have said Moscow’s forces bombed an art school in Mariupol where more than 400 people had taken shelter, amid further reports that civilians from the devastated southern city were being forcibly transported to Russia.
Days after Russian shells struck a theatre in the city also being used as a shelter, local authorities said Mariupol’s G12 art school had been destroyed while women, children and elderly people were inside. There was no immediate word on casualties.
As Moscow claimed on Sunday it had fired a hypersonic missile against Ukraine for the second time, the country’s human rights spokesperson, Ludmila Denisova, accused its forces of kidnapping Mariupol residents and taking them to Russia.
“In recent days, several thousand Mariupol residents have been deported to Russia,” Denisova said on Telegram. After processing at “filtration camps”, some were then transported to the Russian city of Taganrog, about 100km from Mariupol, and from there sent by rail “to various economically depressed cities in Russia”, she said.
InteractiveDenisova said Ukrainian citizens had been “issued papers that require them to be in a certain city. They have no right to leave it for at least two years with the obligation to work at the specified place of work. The fate of others remains unknown.”
Russian news agencies have said hundreds of people Moscow calls refugees have been bussed from Mariupol to Russia.
Denisova said the “abductions and forced displacements” violated the Geneva conventions and the European convention on human rights and called on the international community to “respond” and increase sanctions against the terrorist state of the Russian Federation”.
In a separate post, Denisova said 56 elderly people in the town of Kreminna in the Luhansk region had died after a Russian tank “cynically and purposefully fired at a home for the elderly”. Fifteen survivors were “abducted by the occupiers”, she said, calling the attack “another act of horrific genocide”.
A total of 6,623 civilians were evacuated on Saturday along humanitarian corridors, including 4,000 from Mariupol, authorities said on Sunday, with Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, adding that seven safe routes would again be open on Sunday to enable civilians to leave frontline areas.
More than 3.3 million refugees have fled Ukraine to escape the Russian onslaught in Europe’s fastest growing refugee crisis since the second world war, the UN has said, with another 6.5 million thought to be displaced inside the country.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Sunday it had deployed another of its new Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missiles, which travel faster than the speed of sound and can change direction mid-flight, making them hard to intercept.
The ministry in Moscow said a Kinzhal missile fired had hit a fuel depot near the southern city of Mykolaiv. On Saturday it said it had used the missile for the first time to destroy an ammunition depot in western Ukraine.
It added that cruise missiles had also been launched from Russian warships in the Caspian Sea to strike the fuel depot and an armour repair plant in the northern Chernihiv region of Ukraine. The claims could not be independently verified.
Russian shelling also heavily damaged the Azovstal metallurgical plant in Mariupol, one of the largest in Europe, Ukrainian officials said. “The economic losses for Ukraine are immense,” tweeted an MP, Lesia Vasylenko.
The mayor of the encircled northern city of Chernihiv said on Sunday a hospital had been hit in the latest shelling, killing dozens of civilians. “The city is suffering from an absolute humanitarian catastrophe,” Vladislav Atroshenko said.
Details are also emerging of a rocket attack that killed as many as 40 marines in the Black Sea port city of Mykolaiv on Friday, according to the New York Times, which cited an unnamed Ukrainian military official.
Russian forces fired on eight cities and villages in the eastern Donetsk region between Friday and Saturday, Ukraine’s national police said, killing or wounding dozens of civilians. At least 37 residential buildings and facilities were damaged including a school, a museum and a shopping centre.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said on Sunday that the frontlines between Ukrainian and Russian forces were “practically frozen” as Russia did not have enough combat strength to advance further. “[Over the past day] there were practically no rocket strikes on [UKRAINIAN]cities,” Arestovych added.
Humanitarian conditions in Ukraine, meanwhile, continued to deteriorate. Aid agencies have warned they are struggling to reach hundreds of thousands of people trapped by Russian forces, whose advance has been slowed by logistics problems and fierce Ukrainian resistance around several key cities.
Mariupol is among the hardest hit after suffering heavy bombardment since the start of Russia’s invasion on 24 February, leaving many of its residents without heat, power or water. Local authorities have said at least 2,300 residents have died, some of whom had to be buried in mass graves.
“To do such a thing to a peaceful city, what the occupiers have done, this is a terror that will be remembered even in the next century,” the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said in a video address early on Sunday. Rescue workers on Sunday were still searching for survivors in the Mariupol Drama Theatre flattened by Russian airstrikes on Wednesday.
In the capital, Kyiv, authorities said at least 20 babies carried by Ukrainian surrogate mothers are being cared for by nurses in a bomb shelter because of constant shelling, with parents unable to travel into the war zone to pick them up.
Britain’s defence ministry said Ukrainain resistance had forced Russia to “change its operational approach”, but warned that Moscow’s strategy of attrition was “likely to involve the indiscriminate use of firepower resulting in increased civilian casualties, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure, and intensify the humanitarian crisis”.
Siege of port city
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia’s siege of the port city of Mariupol was “a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come”, while local authorities said thousands of residents there had been taken by force across the border.
“Over the past week, several thousand Mariupol residents were deported onto the Russian territory,” the city council said in a statement on its Telegram channel late on Saturday.
Russian news agencies have said buses have carried several hundred people Moscow calls refugees from Mariupol to Russia in recent days.
Many of Mariupol’s 400,000 residents have been trapped for more than two weeks as Russia seeks to take control of the city, which would help secure a land corridor to the Crimea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
President Vladimir Putin calls the assault on Ukraine, which began on February 24th, a “special operation” to demilitarise the country and root out people he terms dangerous nationalists. Western nations call it an aggressive war of choice and have imposed punishing sanctions aimed at crippling Russia’s economy.
Ukraine and its Western backers say Russian ground forces have made few advances in the last week, concentrating their efforts instead on artillery and missile strikes, often into urban centres.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said on Sunday there had been a relative lull over the past day, with “practically no rocket strikes on (Ukrainian) cities”. He added that front lines were “practically frozen”.
The Mariupol bombardment has left buildings in rubble and severed central supplies of electricity, heating and water, according to local authorities.
Rescue workers were still searching for survivors in a Mariupol theatre that local authorities say was flattened by Russian air strikes on Wednesday. Russia denies hitting the theatre.
Mariupol’s city council also said Russian forces bombed a Mariupol art school on Saturday in which 400 residents were sheltering, but the number of casualties was not yet known.
Reuters could not independently verify the claims. Russia denies targeting civilians.
Mr Zelenskiy said the siege of Mariupol was a war crime. “To do this to a peaceful city... is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” he said in a late night broadcast.
Still, he said, peace talks with Russia were needed although they were “not easy and pleasant”.
Air raid sirens sounded across Ukrainian cities on Sunday and Russia’s defence ministry said cruise missiles were launched from ships in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, as well as hypersonic missiles from Crimean airspace.
The hypersonic missiles travel faster than five times the speed of sound and their speed, manoeuvrability and altitude make them difficult to track and intercept.
They were deployed by Russia for the first time in Ukraine on Saturday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported, in a strike which Moscow said destroyed a large underground depot for missiles and aircraft ammunition.
A spokesperson for the Ukrainian air force command confirmed the attack in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region, but said the Ukrainian side had no information on the type of missiles used.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said seven humanitarian corridors would open on Sunday to enable civilians to leave frontline areas. Ukraine has so far evacuated a total of 190,000 people from such areas, Vereshchuk said on Saturday.
The UN human rights office (UNHCR) said at least 902 civilians had been killed in Ukraine as of midnight Saturday, though it says the real toll is probably much higher. The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said 112 children had been killed.
Ten million people have been displaced by the fighting, including nearly 3.4 million who have fled the country as refugees, the UNHCR said.
Russian forces have also taken heavy losses, and long columns of troops that bore down on the capital Kyiv have been halted in the suburbs. Ukraine’s military said on Sunday that Moscow’s combat losses included 14,700 personnel and 476 tanks.
Russia last acknowledged on March 2nd that nearly 500 of its soldiers had been killed. Reuters has not been able to independently verify the death count.
Mr Zelenskiy’s office said on Sunday Ukraine sees a high risk of an attack launched from Belarus on the western Volyn region, which lies to the north of the city of Lviv. It was not immediately clear whether Ukraine saw such an attack coming from Russian or from Belarusian forces.
While Belarus is a close ally of Mr Putin’s and has served as a staging post for Russian forces, it has so far not publicly committed troops to supporting Russia.
In Syria, some paramilitary fighters say they were ready to deploy to Ukraine to fight in support of their ally Russia but have not yet received instructions to go.
Mr Zelenskiy, who has made frequent appeals for more help from abroad, was due to address the Israeli parliament via video link at 4pm GMT. Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett has held numerous calls with both Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskiy in recent weeks to try to help resolve the conflict.
The foreign minister of Turkey, another country seeking to mediate, said Russia and Ukraine were getting closer to an agreement on “critical” issues and had nearly agreed on some subjects.
Mevlut Cavusoglu also said he was hopeful for a ceasefire if the sides do not take a step back from the progress they have made toward an agreement.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday that Moscow expected its operation in Ukraine to end with the signing of a comprehensive agreement on security issues, including Ukraine’s neutral status, Interfax reported.
Kyiv and Moscow reported some progress in talks last week toward a political formula that would guarantee Ukraine’s security, while keeping it outside Nato, though each side accused the other of dragging things out.
Mr Zelenskiy has said Ukraine could accept international security guarantees that stopped short of its longstanding aim to join Nato. That prospect has been one of Russia’s primary stated concerns. – Reuters with additional reporting by the Guardian