Workers digging through the rubble of an apartment building in Mariupol found 200 bodies in the basement, Ukrainian authorities have said, as more horrors come to light in the ruined city that has seen some of the worst suffering of the three-month-old war.
The bodies were decomposing and the stench hung over the neighbourhood, Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor, said on Tuesday. He did not say when they were discovered.
Heavy fighting, meanwhile, continued in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region that Moscow’s forces are intent on seizing. Russian troops intensified their efforts to encircle and capture Severodonetsk and neighbouring cities.
Mariupol was relentlessly pounded during a nearly three-month siege that ended last week after some 2,500 Ukrainian fighters abandoned a steel plant where they had been holed up.
Russian forces already held the rest of the city, where an estimated 100,000 people remain out of a prewar population of 450,000, many of them trapped during the siege with little food, water, heat or electricity.
At least 21,000 people were killed in the siege, according to Ukrainian authorities, who have accused Russia of trying to cover up the horrors by bringing in mobile cremation equipment and by burying the dead in mass graves.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused the Russians of waging “total war” and seeking to inflict as much death and destruction as possible on his country.
“Indeed, there has not been such a war on the European continent for 77 years,” Zelensky said, referring to the end of World War II.
Russian forces were conducting an all-out assault on Tuesday to encircle Ukrainian troops in twin cities straddling a river in eastern Ukraine, a battle that could determine the success or failure of Moscow’s main campaign in the east.
Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbas for eight years and hold large swaths of territory. The easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Severodonetsk on the east bank of the Seversky Donets river and its twin Lysychansk on the west bank, have become the pivotal battlefield there, with Russian forces advancing from three directions to encircle them.
“The enemy has focused its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle Lysychansk and Severodonetsk,” said Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province.
“The intensity of fire on Severodonetsk has increased by multiple times; they are simply destroying the city,” he said on TV, adding there were about 15,000 people living there.
Moscow’s troops also took over the town of Svitlodarsk and raised the Russian flag there, Ukrainian media reported. Svitlodarsk is about 50km (31 miles) southeast of the strategically important city of Kramatorsk.
Two top Russian officials appeared to acknowledge that Moscow’s advance has been slower than expected, though they vowed the offensive would achieve its goals.
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, said the Russian government “is not chasing deadlines”. And Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of a Russia-led security alliance of former Soviet states that Moscow is deliberately slowing down its offensive to allow residents of encircled cities to evacuate — though forces have repeatedly hit civilian targets.