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‘Ashes of a dead land’: Thousands trapped in besieged Mariupol

Thousands of people remain trapped in the battered Ukraine city of Mariupol

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Intense Russian air strikes are turning besieged Mariupol into the “ashes of a dead land”, the city council says, as Western allies plan more sanctions to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.

It came as a senior US defence official said it appeared Ukrainian forces had tried to take back some territory lost to the Russians in recent days.

The official said Ukrainians were making some gains near Kherson, as well as pushing Russian forces out of the north-east of Mykolaiv. Ukrainian authorities said they had taken back Makariv, a key suburb in Kyiv.

But street fighting and bombardments were again raging in Mariupol on Wednesday. Thousands are believed to be trapped inside buildings in the besieged city, with no access to food, water, power or heat.

Russian forces and Russian-backed separatist units had taken about half of the port city, normally home to about 400,000 people, Russia’s RIA news agency said, citing a separatist leader.

“There is nothing left there,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address to Italy’s parliament.

In his nightly Facebook address on Tuesday (local time), Mr Zelensky said about 100,000 people remained in Mariupol.

“In inhumane conditions. In a complete blockade. No food, no water, no medicine. Under constant shelling, under constant bombing,” he said.

He added that efforts to rescue civilians from the city through humanitarian corridors had been interrupted by Russian “shelling or deliberate terror”.

One humanitarian column was captured by Russia on Tuesday. Ukraine says government workers and a bus driver were taken prisoner, and that a convoy of 11 empty buses that had been driving towards Mariupol to rescue fleeing Ukrainians was also commandeered.

Mariupol deputy mayor Sergei Orlov told CNN the city was under a full blockade and had received no humanitarian aid.

“The city is under continuous bombing, from 50 bombs to 100 bombs Russian aircraft drops each day … A lot of death, a lot of crying, a lot of awful war crimes,” Mr Orlov said.

Mariupol has become the focus of the war that erupted on February 24 when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops over the border on what he calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine and replace its pro-Western leadership.

The city lies on the Sea of Azov and its capture would allow Russia to link areas in the east held by pro-Russian separatists with the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014.

Mr Putin’s 27-day long incursion into Ukraine has forced more than 3.5 million to flee, brought the unprecedented isolation of Russia’s economy, and raised fears of wider conflict.

Western nations plan to heap more economic pressure on the Kremlin.

US President Joe Biden will join allies in applying additional sanctions and tightening existing ones during his trip to Europe this week, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday.

The trip will also include an announcement on joint action to enhance energy security in Europe, which is highly reliant on Russian gas. Mr Biden will show solidarity with Ukraine’s neighbour, Poland, with a visit to Warsaw.

Having failed to seize the capital Kyiv or any other major city with a swift offensive, Russia is waging a war of attrition that has reduced some urban areas to rubble and prompted Western concern the conflict could escalate, even to a nuclear war.

Russia’s security policy dictated the country would use such weapons only if its very existence were threatened, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.

“If it is an existential threat for our country, then it (the nuclear arsenal) can be used,” he said.

The United Nations human rights office in Geneva said on Tuesday it had recorded 953 civilian deaths and 1557 injured since the invasion. The Kremlin denies targeting civilians.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, speaking on Ukrainian television on Tuesday, demanded the opening of a humanitarian corridor for civilians. She said at least 100,000 people wanted to leave Mariupol but could not.

“Our military are defending Mariupol heroically,” Ms Vereshchuk said, referring to Russia’s earlier demand the city surrender by dawn on Monday.

“We did not accept the ultimatum. They offered capitulation under a white flag.”

Kyiv has also accused Moscow of deporting residents of Mariupol and separatist-held areas of Ukraine to Russia. This includes the “forcible transfer” of 2389 children to Russia from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said.

Moscow denies forcing people to leave, saying it is taking in refugees.

In an address overnight, Mr Zelensky drew attention to the death of Boris Romanchenko, 96, who survived three Nazi concentration camps during World War II but was killed when his apartment block in besieged Kharkiv was shelled last week.

In killing Mr Romanchenko, “Putin managed to ‘accomplish’ what even Hitler couldn’t”, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said.

Mr Zelensky will deliver a virtual address to the NATO summit of world leaders in Brussels on Thursday.

-with AAP