KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol yielded up more horrors after six weeks of pummeling by Russian troops, with the mayor saying more than 10,000 civilians have died in the strategic southern port, their corpses “carpeted through the streets.”
As Russia pounded targets around Ukraine and prepared for a major assault in the east, the country’s leader warned President Vladimir Putin’s forces could resort to chemical weapons, and Western officials said they were investigating an unconfirmed claim by a Ukrainian regiment that a poisonous substance was dropped in Mariupol.
The city has seen some of the heaviest attacks and civilian suffering in the war, but the land, sea and air assaults by Russian forces fighting to capture it have increasingly limited information about what’s happening inside the city.
Speaking by phone Monday with The Associated Press, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused Russian forces of having blocked weeks of attempted humanitarian convoys into the city in part to conceal the carnage. Boychenko said the death toll in Mariupol alone could surpass 20,000.
Boychenko also gave new details of allegations by Ukrainian officials that Russian forces have brought mobile cremation equipment to Mariupol to dispose of the corpses of victims of the siege. He said Russian forces have taken many bodies to a huge shopping center where there are storage facilities and refrigerators.
“Mobile crematoriums have arrived in the form of trucks: You open it, and there is a pipe inside and these bodies are burned,” the mayor said.
Boychenko spoke from Ukrainian-controlled territory outside Mariupol. The mayor said he had several sources for his description of the alleged methodical burning of bodies by Russian forces in the city, but did not detail the sources.
The discovery of large numbers of apparently massacred civilians after Russian forces retreated from cities and towns around the capital, Kyiv, already has prompted widespread condemnation and accusations that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.
Those forces withdrew after they failed to take Kyiv in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance, and Russia now says it will focus on the Donbas, an industrial region in Ukraine’s east. Already there are signs the military is gearing up for a major offensive there.
On a visit to Russia’s Far East on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin insisted the military would achieve its goals in Ukraine, saying the campaign was aimed at ensuring Russia’s security and protecting civilians in the east. He added that his country had no intention of isolating itself and that foreign powers wouldn’t succeed in isolating it — despite a raft of sweeping economic sanctions.
Putin’s visit to the Vostochny space launch facility marked his first trip outside Moscow since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24.
The British Defense Ministry said Russian forces are continuing to pull out of Belarus to support operations in eastern Ukraine, where it said fighting “will intensify over the next two to three weeks.”
While building up forces in the east, Russia continued to strike targets across Ukraine in a bid to wear down the country’s defenses. Russia’s defense ministry said Tuesday that it used used air- and sea-launched missiles to destroy an ammunition depot and airplane hangar at Starokostiantyniv in the western Khmelnytskyi region and an ammunition depot near Kyiv.
The Donbas has been torn by fighting between Russian-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces since 2014, and Russia has recognized the separatists’ claims of independence. Military strategists say Russian leaders appear to hope local support, logistics and terrain in the Donbas favor Russia’s larger and better-armed military, potentially allowing its troops to finally turn the tide decisively in their favor in a way they have struggled to thus far.
Russia has appointed a seasoned general to lead its renewed push in the Donbas, but questions remain about the ability of depleted and demoralized Russian forces to conquer much ground.
When their offensive in many parts of the country was thwarted, Russian forces increasingly relied on bombarding cities — a strategy that has flattened many urban areas and killed thousands of people. And Western officials have warned that Putin could resort to using unconventional weapons, particularly chemical agents — part of campaign by U.S. and U.K. authorities to release intelligence findings about Russian plans, in part as a deterrent.
Zelenskyy repeated the warning in his nightly address Monday, specifically saying the arms might be used in Mariupol. “We take this as seriously as possible,” Zelenskyy said.
A Russia-allied separatist official, Eduard Basurin, appeared to urge their use Monday, telling Russian state TV that separatist forces should seize a giant metals plant in Mariupol from Ukrainian forces by first blocking all the exits out of the factory. “And then we’ll use chemical troops to smoke them out of there,” he said.
A Ukrainian regiment defending the plant claimed Monday, without providing evidence, that a drone had dropped a poisonous substance on the city. It indicated there were no serious injuries.
The claim by the Azov Regiment, a far-right group now part of the Ukrainian military, could not be independently verified.
Basurin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Tuesday that the separatist forces “haven’t used any chemical weapons in Mariupol.”
But Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Ukrainian authorities were investigating. She told Ukrainian television that “there is a suggestion that likely it was, possibly, phosphorus munitions.” Britain has warned that Russia may use phosphorus bombs — which cause horrendous burns and whose use in civilian areas is banned under international law — in Mariupol.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that the U.S. could not confirm the drone report out of Mariupol. But Kirby noted the administration’s persistent concerns “about Russia’s potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine.”
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the U.K. was “working urgently” to investigate the report.
Meanwhile, Western military analysts say Russia’s assault increasingly is focusing on an arc of territory stretching from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the north, to Kherson in the south.
A senior U.S. defense official on Monday described a long Russian convoy now rolling toward the eastern city of Izyum with artillery, aviation and infantry support, as part of redeployment for what appears to be the looming Russian campaign.
Ahead of that offensive, there seemed little diplomatic progress toward ending a war that has driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, more than 4 million of them from the country, left thousands dead.
The U.N. children’s agency said nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children have fled their homes since Russia’s invasion began, while Ukrainian authorities accuse Russian forces of committing atrocities, including a massacre in the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, airstrikes on hospitals and a missile attack last week at a train station where people were trying to flee.
In Mariupol, meanwhile, about 120,000 civilians are in dire need of food, water, warmth and communications, the mayor said.
Ukraine accuses Russian forces of forcibly removing people from the city to Ukraine’s separatist-controlled east before sending them to distant, economically depressed areas in Russia. Russia has denied moving people against their will.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press writer Robert Burns in Washington, and AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.