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Foreign Minister slams reports of Russia’s chemical weapons use

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Foreign Minister Marise Payne has blasted reports Russia has unleashed chemical weapons in Ukraine, labelling it “a further wholesale breach of international law”.

US Defence Department press secretary John Kirby said on Tuesday (Australian time) that the Pentagon was closely monitoring reports  of a possible Russian chemical weapons attack in the south-eastern city.

If the reports are verified, it would represent a major escalation of the conflict and present a direct challenge to NATO to act.

“We are aware of social media reports which claim Russian forces deployed a potential chemical munition in Mariupol, Ukraine,” Mr Kirby said.

“We cannot confirm at this time and will continue to monitor the situation closely.”

“These reports, if true, are deeply concerning and reflective of concerns that we have had about Russia’s potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine.”

Britain has also reacted strongly to the new claims, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss saying her government was working “urgently” to verify details.

“Any use of such weapons would be a callous escalation in this conflict, and we will hold Putin and his regime to account,” Ms Truss tweeted.

Last month, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said told a head-of-state summit that use of chemical weapons in Ukraine would “be a blatant violation of international law and will have far-reaching consequences”.

The first claims of a chemical attack came in a Telegram message posted by the Azov Regiment, an ultra-nationalist element of the Ukrainian National Guard.

It said “a poisonous substance of unknown origin” had been dropped from a drone apparently operated by Russian forces. The regiment said nearby troops subsequently had trouble breathing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned the possibility of chemical weapons use should be taken seriously. In his nightly address on Monday, he said Russia might be preparing to escalate attacks on Mariupol.

“Today, the occupiers issued a new statement, which indicates that they are preparing a new stage of terror against Ukraine and our defenders,” Mr Zelensky said.

“One of the occupiers’ spokesmen said that they could use chemical weapons against the defenders of Mariupol. We take this as seriously as possible.”

US officials have warned for days that the Russian army would almost certainly continue to commit what they called “atrocities” as it launched a new offensive in Ukraine’s east.

“Russian leaders have shown in the past … the brutality with which they conduct and prosecute their operations,” Mr Kirby said earlier, citing Russia’s alleged use of chemical weapons during the Syrian civil war as an example.

The reports from Mariupol came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed General Alexander Dvornikov, who oversaw Moscow’s brutal Syrian campaign, to take over command of Russian operations in Ukraine.

Senator Payne said the reports were, “a further indication of President Putin and Russia’s absolute violation of every single value and every single rules-based aspect of the rules-based global order”.

She said Australian would work to verify the reports of chemical weapons being used in the besieged Ukraine city of Mariupol.

Meanwhile, Moscow has imposed its own sanctions on Australian politicians in retaliation to the Morrison government’s sanctions on Russian elites.

“The sanctions are a badge of honour for Australia standing up for freedom,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Senator Payne said the sanctions would not deter Australia from imposing “the maximum possible costs” on Russia over its unlawful invasion.

-with AAP