Ukraine has accused Russian forces of breaching a ceasefire and destroying a hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol, as aid agencies warned of a humanitarian disaster unfolding in the city.
Posting a video from inside a maternity ward that appeared to be devastated by bombing, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, claimed that Russia was responsible for an “atrocity”.
“People, children are under the wreckage,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter. “How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror?”
Pavlo Kirilenko, governor of the Donetsk region, said a Russian air strike had destroyed the maternity hospital, a children’s ward and a therapy centre. A video posted on his Facebook page showed a bomb crater several metres deep adjacent to wrecked hospital buildings.
Mariupol, a port city of 460,000, has been one of the hardest hit in a war that is raging with no end in sight, laying waste to urban areas, unsettling the world economy and driving more than 2mn civilians out of the country in search of refuge.
Having endured heavy Russian shelling for days, tens of thousands of residents have been confined to freezing basements and shelters and are living without water, heat, basic sanitation or a functioning phone network.
With the civilian death toll mounting, Mariupol’s local authorities have resorted to digging a mass grave, saying normal burials have become impossible.
“Sadly, there are just too many bodies,” said Vitaly Falkovsky, a local official. “It was a necessary measure because we can’t bury people in the normal way. The morgues are overflowing.”
Messages posted on social media from residents of the city said they have been reduced to cooking food on fires in the open air and collecting rainwater to drink.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the humanitarian situation in Ukraine was “increasingly dire and desperate”, with homes “reduced to rubble” and families “huddled underground for hours on end to seek refuge from fighting”.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have no food, no water, no heat, no electricity and no medical care,” the ICRC said.
Meanwhile, the UK Ministry of Defence on Wednesday said the Russian military had confirmed its use of a thermobaric weapon in Ukraine. The so-called TOS-1A system creates “incendiary and blast effects” that have a “devastating impact”, the MoD added.
Zelensky repeated his calls for the west to impose a no-fly zone, but the US and UK reiterated their opposition to any such move, including a “limited” zone to protect humanitarian corridors. The Pentagon also rejected a proposal, backed by Zelensky, to transfer Polish MiG-29 fighter planes to Kyiv, warning it could provoke a direct conflict between Russia and Nato.
At a news conference with UK foreign secretary Liz Truss, Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said he too would be “asking for everything” if he were in the Ukrainian president’s position.
But Blinken said the US could not send ground forces or pilots into Ukraine. “Introducing . . . American pilots into Ukrainian airspace, whether on a full or limited basis, will almost certainly lead to direct conflict between the US, and between Nato, and Russia. That would expand the conflict,” he said.
Truss said that while the attack was “abhorrent”, using Nato aircraft to enforce a no-fly zone would “lead to a direct confrontation between Nato and Russia”.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said it was “horrifying to see the type of barbaric use of military force to go after innocent civilians”.
Psaki later said Russian claims that the US had helped Ukraine develop a biological and chemical weapons programme were “preposterous” and warned about the possibility that Moscow would use the claims to conduct a “false flag operation” in Ukraine.
John Kirby, Pentagon spokesperson, said the claims were “classic” Russian propaganda. “In the words of my Irish Catholic grandfather, a bunch of malarkey,” he said. “I wouldn’t give it a drop of ink.”
Following a pattern of largely unsuccessful efforts to allow civilians to flee the worst-affected towns, Ukraine said on Wednesday it had reached an agreement with Russia to create multiple evacuation corridors, including out of Mariupol.
But despite Russian promises of a 12-hour ceasefire, significant evacuations were not possible aside from in the city of Sumy, where for a second successive day a ceasefire allowed some residents to escape.
Falkovsky said Mariupol had been subjected to “continual shelling” from Russian positions. “It just doesn’t cease,” he said. “We are unable to evacuate anyone — the Russian forces thwart any attempt to get people out.”
Western officials said fighting north-west of Kyiv was continuing, but Russian forces had failed to make any significant breakthroughs as they continue to besiege the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol.
Zelensky has pleaded with the west to provide more support and resolve the situation. “Listen: we have a war, this is not ping pong,” he said in a televised address. “We ask once again: solve it faster. Do not shift the responsibility. Send us planes.”
The Kremlin, meanwhile, underlined the risks for Nato members of providing combat aircraft to Ukraine. Dmitry Peskov, spokesperson for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, described the Polish proposal as “potentially dangerous”, according to the Russian newswire Interfax.
In announcing on Wednesday that the US had abandoned efforts to help supply Ukraine with the aircraft, Kirby said the US intelligence community assessed that such a move would have risked an escalation in the conflict.
The US banned imports of Russian oil and gas on Tuesday, while the UK announced a phasing out of oil from Russia and the EU unveiled a plan to cut gas imports from the country by two-thirds within a year. Joe Biden, US president, called the ban a “powerful blow to Putin’s war machine”.
Moscow responded by declaring it would restrict the export of some unspecified commodities. Rating agency Fitch downgraded Russia by six notches on Tuesday, saying domestic measures and foreign sanctions made a bond default “imminent”.
The oil price eased off a 14-year high of $139 that was hit on Monday, with Brent crude down 17 per cent in late trading in New York on Wednesday at $111 a barrel. European natural gas contracts were down about a fifth at €165 per megawatt hour, having reached an all-time high earlier in the week.