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Russian military pushes towards Kyiv as ‘unimaginable tragedy’ looms

Russian forces inched towards the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and pounded civilian areas in other cities Friday and Saturday, drawing warnings of “unimaginable tragedy” as the United States and the EU moved to tighten the economic noose around the Kremlin.

Sixteen days after Moscow shocked the world by invading Ukraine, the United Nations and others said it may be committing war crimes in cities such as Mariupol, which for days now has been besieged by Vladimir Putin’s forces.

On Friday, officials in the southern port city said more than 1,500 people had been killed during 12 days of attacks.

Survivors have been trying to flee Russian bombardment in a freezing city left without water or heating, and running out of food. The situation is “desperate,” a Doctors Without Borders official said.

“Hundreds of thousands of people… are for all intents and purposes besieged,” Stephen Cornish, one of those heading the medical charity’s Ukraine operation, told AFP in an interview.

“Sieges are a medieval practice that have been outlawed by the modern rules of war for good reason.”

As Russia widens its bombardment and talks between Moscow and Kyiv seemingly go nowhere, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas for NATO to intervene have grown increasingly desperate.

US President Joe Biden on Friday again ruled out direct action against nuclear-armed Russia, warning that it would lead to “World War III.”

Instead Washington added more layers of sanctions to those already crippling Russia’s economy, this time ending normal trade relations and announcing a ban on signature Russian goods vodka, seafood and diamonds.

The United States and the European Union also suspended the export of their luxury goods to Russia.

“Putin must pay the price. He cannot pursue a war that threatens the very foundation of international peace and stability and then ask for help from the international community,” Biden said from the White House.

He spoke as the United Nations said 2.5 million people had now fled Ukraine and around two million more had been internally displaced by the war.

‘Nobody buries them’

Yulia, a 29-year-old teacher who fled Mariupol, said her mother-in-law was still there, and told them “the attacks don’t stop”.

“There are many corpses on the street and nobody buries them,” she told AFP.

In a video address released Saturday, Zelensky appealed to the mothers of Russian soldiers to prevent their sons from being sent to war.

“I want to say this once again to Russian mothers, especially mothers of conscripts. Do not send your children to war in a foreign country,” Zelensky said in a video address released on Telegram.

“Check where your son is. And if you have the slightest suspicion that your son could be sent to war against Ukraine, act immediately” to prevent him being killed or captured, he said.

“Ukraine never wanted this terrible war. And Ukraine does not want it. But it will defend itself as much as necessary,” he added

In Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv, doctors at a hospital described spending two days pumping ash from the stomach of an eight-year-old child whose home was blasted by a Russian missile.

“He still has cinders in his lungs,” Dima Kasyanov’s doctor told AFP.

Dnipro, an industrial hub of one million inhabitants, saw its image as a relatively safe haven shattered when three missiles hit civilian buildings Friday.

Images of its charred or destroyed buildings — including a kindergarten with windows blown out — now join those from Kharkiv and Mariupol as testimony to the brutal conflict.

“Today, we were supposed to host people who need a lot of support,” said Svetlana Kalenecheko, who lives and works in a clinic that was damaged.

“Now we can’t help anyone.”

The attacks on civilians prompted a new flurry of warnings from the Hague and the United Nations Friday that Russia is committing war crimes.

“We are really heading towards an unimaginable tragedy,” Cornish, of Doctors Without Borders, warned, insisting that “there is still time to avoid it, and we must see it avoided.”

Reuters reported on Friday that satellite images showed Russian military units continuing to deploy closer to Kyiv and actively firing artillery toward residential areas.

It said that the images, taken by private U.S. firm Maxar Technologies, showed multiple homes and buildings were on fire and widespread damage and impact craters were seen throughout the town of Moschun, northwest of the Ukrainian capital.


Meanwhile the Kremlin is slowly surrounding Kyiv, with Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak calling it a “city under siege”.

He tweeted that it was “ready to fight” with checkpoints prepared and supply lines in place, adding: “Kyiv will stand until the end”.

The Ukrainian military has said Russia is trying to take out Kyiv’s defenses to the north and west, where suburbs including Irpin and Bucha have already endured days of heavy bombardment.

Russian armored vehicles are also advancing on the capital’s northeast.

As the slow but steady advance continues, so has the tide of refugees.

Around 100,000 people have been able to leave the northeastern city of Sumy, the eastern city of Izyum, and areas northwest of Kyiv in the last two days, Ukrainian officials said.

Zelensky warned living conditions were deteriorating fast.

“In the Sumy, Kyiv and Donetsk regions, there is no more electricity. Yes, there are problems with heating. There is no gas, no water,” he said.

“It’s a humanitarian catastrophe.”

‘Murderers from Syria’

Foreign combatants have already entered the Ukrainian conflict on both sides.

A group of British ex-servicemen — including the son of a Conservative lawmaker — have arrived in Ukraine bent on fighting Russians, despite UK government warnings against joining the war.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss appeared to give Britons licence to join up when she said on February 27: “Absolutely, if that’s what they wanted to do.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and the head of the armed forces have all disowned Truss’s comment, and she reversed herself Wednesday.

Foreign Office advice warns against all travel to Ukraine, and Britons wanting to help should rather donate money to a national fundraising appeal, she told a news conference in Washington.

Ben Grant, 30, who served for five years as a Royal Marines commando, is among seven British former soldiers who arrived in Ukraine over the weekend, The Guardian reported this past week.

His mother, Helen Grant, is a Conservative lawmaker and former minister who is Johnson’s special envoy on girls’ education.

On Friday, the Kremlin ramped up efforts to bring in reinforcements, particularly from Syria.

A furious Zelensky accused Russia of hiring “murderers from Syria, a country where everything has been destroyed… like they are doing here to us”.

In southern Ukraine, Russian soldiers abducted the mayor of Melitopol, which Zelensky said was a “sign of weakness” and a “crime against democracy”.

The global ripple effects of the conflict continued elsewhere.

Last-minute Russian demands related to the conflict threatened to derail the near-complete process of reviving the Iranian nuclear deal Friday.

And the fighting spurred vows to bolster the European Union’s defenses, with EU leaders describing the invasion as a wake-up call.

“There’s no denying the fact that two weeks ago we woke up in a different Europe, in a different world,” European Council chief Charles Michel said.

Russia also moved Friday to block Instagram and launch a criminal case against its owner Meta, as Moscow fired back at the tech giant for allowing posts calling for violence against Russian forces.

With Ukraine fearing that Russia’s ally Belarus will soon join the conflict, the United States said on Friday that it has not seen evidence that Belarusian troops are in Ukraine.

“We haven’t seen any indications that Belarusian troops or forces have moved inside Ukraine,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

“We’re not tracking any imminent involvement by Belarusian forces,” Kirby said. “That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen or that it wouldn’t happen.”

The Pentagon spokesman said the United States had noted comments by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that his country’s forces would “come to the defense of the rear of Russian forces should they be attacked.”

“That’s the first time that he’s ever said anything about Belarus perhaps getting involved,” Kirby said, but there are “no indications at this time that they have or that that’s in the offing.”

A senior US defense official said earlier Friday that Russian forces have launched more than 80 missiles into Ukraine from Belarus.

That represents about 10 percent of the more than 800 Russian missiles fired into Ukraine since the invasion began, the official said.

‘We will not fight’

Talks have so far made no progress towards ending the fighting.

Putin has said negotiations were being held “almost daily”, and US and European stock markets rose Friday on his comments that there had been “certain positive shifts”.

But US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking in Bucharest, said the Russian leader had shown “no sign of engaging in serious diplomacy”.

At the United Nations, Western countries accused Russia of spreading “wild” conspiracy theories after Moscow’s envoy told diplomats that America and Ukraine had researched using bats to conduct biological warfare.

The US envoy said Russia had made the claims as part of a “false flag effort” for using chemical weapons of its own in Ukraine.

A senior US official told ABC News that some Russian forces are bringing protective “chem-bio suits” with them to Ukraine.

Biden warned Russia would pay a “severe price” if it used chemical weapons.

But he again carefully steered clear of any indication that such an attack would be a red line that could draw direct US military action.

“We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine,” he said.

Source: AGENCIES via TOI

Header: A service member of pro-Russian troops in uniform without insignia jumps off a tank outside a damaged residential building in the separatist-controlled town of Volnovakha in Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 11, 2022.