KYIV. Russian forces inched toward Kiev on Saturday and attacked civilian areas in other Ukrainian cities as concern grew over the beleaguered southern port of Mariupol, where authorities 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 be committing war crimes in cities like Mariupol, which has been under attack by Vladimir Putin’s forces for days.
Survivors have been trying to flee Russian bombardment in a frozen city left without water, heat and food. The situation is “desperate,” said a Doctors Without Borders official.
“Hundreds of thousands of people … are under siege for all intents and purposes,” Stephen Cornish, one of those running the medical charity’s operation in Ukraine, told AFP in an interview.
“Sieges are a medieval practice that has been outlawed by modern rules of warfare for good reason.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said they were trying to organize evacuations from besieged cities, but efforts were being disrupted by Russian forces.
“Mariupol is still blocked by the enemy. Russian troops did not allow our aid to enter the city and continue to torture our people, our Mariupol residents,” Zelensky said in a video address Friday night.
“Tomorrow we will try again. Once again, send food, water and medicine to our city.”
As Russia expands its bombardment and talks between Moscow and Kiev are seemingly going nowhere, Zelensky’s pleas for NATO to intervene have grown increasingly desperate.
US President Joe Biden on Friday again ruled out direct action against nuclear-armed Russia, warning it would lead to “World War III.”
Instead, Washington added more layers of sanctions to those already crippling Russia’s economy, this time ending normal trade relations and announcing a ban on Russian products 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 wage a war that threatens the very foundation of international peace and stability and then ask the international community for help,” Biden said from the White House.
He spoke as the United Nations said 2.5 million people had fled Ukraine and around two million more had been internally displaced by the war.
‘No one buries them’
Yulia, a 29-year-old teacher who fled Mariupol, said her mother-in-law was still there, telling them “the attacks don’t stop.”
“There are many corpses in the street and nobody buries them,” he told AFP.
In a video speech released on Saturday, Zelensky called on Russian mothers to prevent their children from being sent to war.
“I want to say this once again to Russian mothers, especially mothers of conscripts. Don’t send your children to war in a foreign country,” he said.
Zelensky said that more than 12,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in the invasion. US estimates put the number of Russian deaths at between 2,000 and 4,000, while the only official figure from Moscow, announced last week, said 498 Russian soldiers had been killed.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, doctors at a hospital described spending two days removing ashes from the stomach of an eight-year-old boy whose home was destroyed by a Russian missile.
“He still has ashes in his lungs,” Dima Kasyanov’s doctor told AFP.
Dnipro, an industrial hub of a million people, had 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 broken windows, now join those of Kharkiv and Mariupol as testimony to the brutal conflict.
“Today we were supposed to receive 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 prompted a new wave of warnings from The Hague and the United Nations on Friday that Russia is committing war crimes.
“We are really heading towards an unimaginable tragedy,” warned Cornish, of Doctors Without Borders, who insisted that “there is still time to avoid it, and we must see how it is avoided.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin is slowly encircling Kiev, with Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak calling it a “city under siege.”
He tweeted that he was “ready to fight”, with checkpoints prepared and supply lines in place, adding: “Kiev will hold out to the end.”
The Ukrainian military has said that Russia is seeking to remove Kiev’s defenses in the north and west, where suburbs including Irpin and Bucha have already suffered days of heavy shelling.
Russian armored vehicles are also moving north-east of the capital.
As the slow but steady advance continues, so does the tide of refugees.
Some 100,000 people have been able to leave the northeastern city of Sumy, the eastern city of Izyum and areas northwest of Kiev in the past two days, Ukrainian officials said.
Zelensky warned that living conditions were rapidly deteriorating.
“In the Sumy, Kyiv and Donetsk regions, there is no electricity anymore. Yes, there are problems with heating. There is no gas, no water,” he said.
“It’s a humanitarian catastrophe.”
‘Assassins from Syria’
Foreign fighters have already entered the Ukrainian conflict from both sides, and on Friday the Kremlin stepped up efforts to bring in reinforcements, particularly from Syria.
A furious Zelensky accused Russia of hiring “assassins from Syria, a country where everything has been destroyed… as they are doing here with us.”
In southern Ukraine, Russian soldiers kidnapped the mayor of Melitopol, which Zelensky said was a “sign of weakness” and a “crime against democracy.”
The global effects of the conflict continued elsewhere.
Last-minute Russian demands related to the conflict threatened to derail the almost complete process of reviving the Iranian nuclear deal on Friday.
And the fighting prompted promises to bolster the European Union’s defenses, with EU leaders describing the invasion as a wake-up call.
“There is no denying the fact that two weeks ago we woke up in a different Europe, in a different world,” European Council chief Charles Michel said.
Russia also moved on Friday to block Instagram and launch a criminal case 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’
So far, talks have made no progress to end the fighting.
Putin has said negotiations are taking place “almost daily”, but US Vice President Kamala Harris said in Bucharest that the Russian leader “has shown no signs of engaging in serious diplomacy”.
At the United Nations, Western countries accused Russia of spreading “wild” conspiracy theories after Moscow’s envoy told diplomats that the United States and Ukraine had investigated the use of bats to carry out biological warfare.
The US envoy said Russia had made the claims as part of a “false flag effort” to use its own chemical weapons in Ukraine.
Biden warned that Russia would pay a “severe price” if it used chemical weapons.
But once again he carefully avoided any indication that such an attack would be a red line that could attract direct US military action.
“We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine,” he said.