Civilians were fleeing areas of eastern Ukraine on Wednesday ahead of an anticipated Russian offensive, while kyiv said it was checking reports Russian forces had used chemical weapons in the besieged port city of Mariupol.
The battle for Mariupol was reaching a decisive phase, with the Ukrainian marines holed up in the Azovstal industrial district.
If the Russians seize Azovstal, they would have complete control of Mariupol, the axis between the Russian-controlled areas to the west and east. The city has already been ravaged by weeks of Russian bombardment that has possibly killed thousands of civilians.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said the government was reviewing unverified information that Russia may have used chemical weapons while besieging Mariupol.
“There is a theory that it could be phosphorus munitions,” Malyar said in televised comments.
President Volodymyr Zelensky had said late on Monday that Russia could resort to chemical weapons as it amassed troops in the eastern Donbas region for a new assault on Mariupol. He did not say whether they had actually been used.
The United States and Britain said they were trying to verify the reports. If Russia had used chemical weapons, “all options were on the table” in response, British Defense Secretary James Heappey said in London.
The Russian Defense Ministry has not yet responded to a Reuters request for comment. Russian-backed separatist forces in the east denied using chemical weapons in Mariupol, the Interfax news agency reported.
But if it turns out to be the case, it would mark a dangerous new development in a war that has already left a trail of death and destruction since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops across the border on February 24.
MURAT YUKSELIR / THE BALLOON AND THE MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS
Around a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people have been forced from their homes, cities have turned to rubble and thousands of people have been killed or injured, many of them civilians.
Putin calls the action a “special military operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine, but it has drawn condemnation and alarm in the West, which has imposed a wide range of sanctions to squeeze the Russian economy.
After their troops bogged down in the face of Ukrainian resistance, the Russians abandoned their attempt to capture the capital, kyiv, for now. But they are redoubling their efforts in the east and Ukrainian forces are digging in to face a new offensive.
Luhansk region governor Serhiy Gaidai urged residents to evacuate using five agreed humanitarian corridors to the east.
“It’s much scarier to stay and get burned in your sleep by a Russian shell,” he wrote on social media. “Evacuate, every day the situation worsens. Please take your essential items and proceed to the collection point.”
In total, nine humanitarian corridors have been agreed for Tuesday, including one for private cars from Mariupol, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
In its morning report on the conflict, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said that in addition to trying to take control of Mariupol, Russian forces also intended to capture Popasna, a town about two hours’ drive west. from Lugansk, and were ready to launch an offensive in the direction of Kurakhove, in the Donetsk region.
The Ukrainian military said its troops had repulsed attacks in both Lugansk and Donetsk.
President Zelensky overnight called for more weapons from the West to help end the siege of Mariupol and fend off the expected Russian offensive in the east.
“Unfortunately, we are not getting everything we need to end this war faster… in particular, to lift the blockade of Mariupol,” he said.
The departure of Russian forces from the outskirts of kyiv brought to light accusations of war crimes, including executions and rapes of civilians. Moscow dismisses the accusations as Ukrainian and Western provocations and has also accused Ukrainian forces of sexual violence.
Senior UN official Sima Bahous told the UN Security Council on Monday that while all allegations must be independently investigated, “the brutality shown against Ukrainian civilians has raised all red flags.”
“We are hearing more and more about rape and sexual violence,” he said.
Kateryna Cherepakha, president of rights group La Strada-Ukraine, told the council via video: “Violence and rape are now used as a weapon of war by the Russian invaders in Ukraine.”
Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN denied the accusations, accusing Ukraine and its allies of “a clear intention to portray Russian soldiers as sadists and rapists.”
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the United States was ordering the Ukrainian government to plant false evidence of Russian violence against civilians despite what it called “unprecedented measures to save civilians” from Moscow.
Putin is scheduled to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday to discuss Ukraine and Western sanctions, Russian and Belarusian news agencies reported. Belarus is a key staging area for Russian forces.
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