The National Times - Russia closes in on Mariupol as Putin strikes defiant tone

Russia closes in on Mariupol as Putin strikes defiant tone

Russia closes in on Mariupol as Putin strikes defiant tone
Russia closes in on Mariupol as Putin strikes defiant tone / Photo: © AFP/File

Russian troops on Tuesday intensified a campaign to take the port city of Mariupol, part of an anticipated massive onslaught across eastern Ukraine, as President Vladimir Putin made a defiant case for the war on Russia's neighbour.

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Moscow is believed to be trying to connect occupied Crimea with Russian-backed separatist territories Donetsk and Lugansk in Donbas, and has laid siege to the strategically located city, once home to more than 400,000 people.

Civilians were struggling to flee targeted zones, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky condemning alleged mass rapes in areas previously occupied by Russian troops, including sexual assaults of small children.

As the fighting dragged toward its seventh week, the Ukrainian army fought desperately to defend Mariupol against the Russian offensive.

"The connection with the units of the defence forces that heroically hold the city is stable and maintained," the Land Forces of Ukraine wrote on Telegram.

However, the Russian defence ministry said its army had thwarted an attempt to break the siege with "airstrikes and artillery fire" at a factory in a northern district of the city.

In his nightly address, Zelensky on Monday made another plea to his allies for more weapons to boost the defence of the city.

"We are not getting as much as we need to end this war sooner. To completely destroy the enemy on our land... in particular, to unblock Mariupol," he said.

Zelensky has said he believes Russia has killed "at least tens of thousands of people" in the city.

With little hope of a quick end to fighting, Putin pledged Moscow would proceed on its own timetable with its military operation, rebuffing repeated international calls for a ceasefire.

"Our task is to fulfil and achieve all the goals set, minimising losses. And we will act rhythmically, calmly, according to the plan originally proposed by the General Staff," Putin said during a televised press conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

He also dismissed as "fake" reports of the discovery of hundreds of dead bodies of civilians in the town of Bucha outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv after the withdrawal of Moscow's forces.

Images taken by journalists on the ground, including AFP reporters, of bodies littering the streets of Bucha sparked worldwide outrage and calls for an investigation into possible war crimes.

Bucha Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said on Tuesday that more than 400 people had been found dead so far and 25 women reported being raped, as the town prepares for the return of residents who fled the fighting.

"What people will find in their homes is shocking, and they will remember the Russian occupiers for a very long time," he said.

Ukraine's border force said Tuesday that more than 870,000 people who fled abroad since the start of the war had returned to the country, including a growing number of women and children.

-'Helping people' -

However, heavy bombardment continued in the east as civilians were urged to flee ahead of an expected Russian troop surge in the region.

Russian forces are reinforcing around the Donbas region, notably near the town of Izyum, but have not yet launched a full offensive, US Pentagon officials said Monday.

They reported a Russian convoy had been observed heading for Izyum, an hour's drive north of Kramatorsk, saying it appeared to be a mix of personnel-carriers, armoured vehicles and possible artillery.

Putin insisted that Russia's own security was at stake in Donbas.

"What we are doing is helping people -- rescuing them on the one hand and on the other taking measures to assure Russia's security," he said.

Putin accused Ukraine of "inconsistency on fundamental points" which he said was slowing down talks on ending the war.

Kyiv admitted that ongoing talks with Russia to end the war were "extremely difficult".

"The Russian side adheres to its traditional tactics of public pressure on the negotiation process, including through certain public statements," Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said in written comments to reporters.

Meanwhile, the toll on towns previously occupied by Russian forces during their month-long offensive to take Kyiv was still coming to light.

Ukrainian prosecutors said Tuesday that six people had been found shot dead in the basement of a building outside the capital, the latest discovery fuelling allegations of Russian atrocities.

AFP on Monday saw the bodies of three men in civilian clothes exhumed from gardens in Andriivka, 33 kilometres (20 miles) west of Kyiv as relatives gathered to learn the fate of their kin.

The UN Security Council -- which on Monday held a session on the plight of women and children in Ukraine -- will hold another meeting next week on the humanitarian situation there, in a bid to keep pressure on Russia despite its veto power over the body, diplomats said.

- 'Rape and sexual violence' -

Officials called for a probe into assaults against women during the conflict.

"We are increasingly hearing of rape and sexual violence," Sima Bahous, director of the UN women's agency, told the Council. "These allegations must be independently investigated to ensure justice and accountability."

Zelensky on Tuesday voiced anger about the repeated accounts of sexual violence against Ukrainians.

"Hundreds of cases of rape have been recorded, including those of young girls and very young children. Even of a baby!" he told Lithuanian lawmakers via video link.

More than 4.6 million Ukrainian refugees have now fled their country, the United Nations refugee agency said -- 90 percent of them women and children.

The war has displaced more than 10 million people overall.

One of those was Tatyana Kaftan, just weeks away from giving birth to her first child, who spoke to AFP at an aid distribution point in the western city of Lviv.

Her husband, who is waiting to be called up to the army, stood by her side.

"We left everything at home," said the 35-year-old travel agent, who drove with her husband all the way from Mykolaiv to escape Russian shelling.

"We have nothing."

- Chemical weapons allegations -

Late Monday, Britain said it was trying to verify reports that Russia had also used chemical weapons in Mariupol.

Ukrainian lawmaker Ivanna Klympush said Russia had used an "unknown substance" and that people were suffering from respiratory failure.

But deputy defence minister Ganna Maliar said the purported chemical attack was more likely phosphorous munitions.

As the war sent energy and food prices soaring, Oxfam warned that fallout from the conflict, growing inequality and Covid could force more than a quarter of a billion people into extreme poverty this year.