Ukraine has accused Russia of bombing a children’s hospital and maternity ward in the besieged port city of Mariupol, wounding 17 people and trapping children and others under the rubble in what it called “a war crime without justification”.
Russia had said it would hold fire to let thousands of civilians flee Mariupol and other besieged cities on Wednesday, but Mariupol’s city council said the hospital had been hit several times by an air strike.
“The destruction is colossal,” it said in an online post.
The ground shook more than a mile away when the Mariupol complex was hit by the series of blasts that blew out windows and ripped away much of the front of one building.
Footage from the scene showed police and soldiers rushing to the scene to evacuate victims, carrying out a heavily pregnant and bleeding woman on a stretcher as light snow drifted down on burning and mangled cars and trees shattered by the blast.
Another woman wailed as she clutched her child. In the courtyard, a blast crater extended at least two stories deep.
“Today Russia committed a huge crime,” said Volodymir Nikulin, a top regional police official, standing in the ruins. “It is a war crime without any justification.”
‘Close the sky right now’
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also shared footage on Twitter from the scene of the alleged attack, which appeared to show several wrecked rooms along a corridor in a building that had blown-out windows. Outside of the building, a square carpeted with rubble and debris could be seen.
“How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror? Close the sky right now! Stop the killings! You have power but you seem to be losing humanity,” Zelenskyy said.
Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify the footage.
When asked by Reuters news agency for comment, a spokesman for the Kremlin said: “Russian forces do not fire on civilian targets.”
Mariupol. Direct strike of Russian troops at the maternity hospital. People, children are under the wreckage. Atrocity! How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror? Close the sky right now! Stop the killings! You have power but you seem to be losing humanity. pic.twitter.com/FoaNdbKH5k
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) March 9, 2022
In a televised address later on Wednesday, Zelenskky accused Russia of “genocide”.
He also repeated his call for the West to tighten sanctions on Russia “so that they sit down at the negotiating table and end this brutal war”. The bombing of the children’s hospital, he said, was “proof that a genocide of Ukrainians is taking place”.
The Donetsk region’s governor said 17 people were wounded in the attack, including women in labour. The reports could not immediately be verified.
The United Nations Human Rights body said it was verifying the number of casualties at Mariupol.
“The incident adds to our deep concerns about indiscriminate use of weapons in populated areas and civilians trapped in active hostilities in numerous areas,” said spokesperson Liz Throssell.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the attack “horrific”
“Civilians are paying the highest price for a war that has nothing to do with them. This senseless violence must stop,” he said on Twitter. “End the bloodshed now.”
The White House also slammed the “barbaric” use of force after the apparent Russian air strike.
“It is horrifying to see the type of, the barbaric use of military force to go after innocent civilians in a sovereign country,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin “to account for his terrible crimes”.
“There are few things more depraved than targeting the vulnerable and defenceless,” he said in a post on Twitter.
Authorities had announced new ceasefires on Wednesday morning to allow thousands of civilians to escape from towns around Kyiv as well as in Mariupol, Enerhodar and Volnovakha, Izyum in the east and Sumy in the northeast.
Previous attempts to establish safe evacuation corridors largely failed because of what the Ukrainians said were Russian attacks. But Putin, in a telephone call with Germany’s chancellor, accused Ukrainian nationalists of hampering the evacuations.
About 200,000 people in Mariupol are waiting to flee violence as the humanitarian situation is reportedly growing more desperate by the day.
The port city has been without water, heat, functioning sanitation systems or phone connections for the past week, with bodies lying uncollected on the streets and residents relying on streams or melting snow for drinking water. Continued shelling has also prevented repairs to damaged heating and water infrastructure.
Earlier on Wednesday Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia had broken the ceasefire around the southern port, which lies between Russian-backed separatist areas of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, annexed by Moscow from Ukraine in 2014.
“Russia continues holding hostage over 400,000 people in Mariupol, blocks humanitarian aid and evacuation. Indiscriminate shelling continues,” he wrote on Twitter. “Almost 3,000 newborn babies lack medicine and food.”
Ukraine said at least 1,170 civilians had been killed in Mariupol since the start of the invasion, and 47 were buried in a mass grave on Wednesday. It was not possible to verify the figures.
The United Nations human rights office in Geneva, just prior to the reports of the hospital attack, said it had verified 516 civilian deaths and 908 people wounded since the conflict began.
Taking Mariupol would allow Russia to link forces pushing north from Crimea with its forces from the east.