Russian forces have intensified their bombardment of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol as street fighting has raged on Tuesday, a day after Mariupol authorities rejected Moscow’s ultimatum to surrender, Ukrainian officials said.
Russian shelling is turning the southern city into the “ashes of a dead land”, the city council said on Tuesday. 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.
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While a few evacuations from the city have taken place in recent days, hundreds of thousands remain trapped within the city and are lacking food, water, heat and electricity since Russian soldiers encircled the city more than two weeks ago.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister says at least 100,000 civilians want to escape from the city, but cannot because of a lack of safe evacuation corridors. Iryna Vereshchuk said that shelling by Russian forces was also preventing rescue workers from accessing the site of a bombed theatre in Mariupol where city officials say hundreds were believed to be sheltering underground when it was hit by an air raid last week.
In a video address to Italy’s parliament, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there was “nothing left” in the city following the Russian bombardment.
Kyiv has accused Moscow of deporting residents of Mariupol and separatist-held areas of Ukraine to Russia. Ukraine’s 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.
The relentless attacks on Mariupol, including on a maternity ward and on a theatre sheltering hundreds of people last week, have become the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, which started on February 24. Putin described the invasion as a “special military operation” and Russia says it does not target civilians.
Ukraine accused Russia of blocking humanitarian access to the southern city of Kherson, which lies northwest of Crimea and is the only provincial capital it has captured since the full-scale invasion was launched. The Foreign Ministry said Kherson’s 300,000 residents were running out of food.
In the north, Ukrainian forces reportedly pushed back Russia’s advances with counteroffensives near Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv.
Fighting intensified northwest of the capital, with Ukraine saying on Monday that its troops had retaken control of the district of Makariv.
On Tuesday, fighting continued in the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, where at least 600 buildings have been destroyed by Russian shelling since the start of the war, according to local authorities.
“There have been air raid sirens going on all day with constant artillery fire that you can hear even from the centre of the city,” said Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from Kharkiv. Two dead bodies were found under the rubble on Tuesday, 20 days after an airstrike hit a building in the city centre, Baig said.
Meanwhile the capital Kyiv has been under a curfew since Monday, after a Russian air strike killed eight people in a residential area.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Kyiv, noted that as Russia’s advance into the capital has stalled in the past days, Russian forces have increased the number of air strikes against Ukrainian cities.
“That suggests that there is a change of tactic from Russian forces,” Khan said. “And that is what we are actually seeing, particularly in the north of the capital.”
On the negotiating front, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy said late Monday that he was ready to meet Putin “in any format” to discuss ending the war, but added that any deal would have to go through a referendum. Zelenskyy said the status of contested territories in the country’s east could be discussed, and that Kyiv was willing to shelve its NATO ambition in exchange for the withdrawal of Russian forces.
The humanitarian toll
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva said on Tuesday that it had recorded 953 civilian deaths and 1,557 injuries since the start of the invasion, although the actual toll was believed to be much higher.
On Monday, Save the Children said that up to six million children stuck in Ukraine “are in imminent danger” and at least 64 schools and 43 hospitals have been bombed by Russia.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 3.5 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, marking another milestone in the mass exodus that has led to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. More than two million of the refugees have entered neighbouring Poland, with more than 540,000 and 367,000 others crossing into Romania and Moldova, respectively.