Ukraine facing humanitarian crisis amid relentless Russian missile attacks

Shelling of residential areas leaves hundreds dead and forces more than 800,000 to flee country

Ukraine is facing a humanitarian crisis, international health experts have warned, as relentless Russian missile attacks on residential areas in several cities have left hundreds of civilians dead and forced more than 800,000 to flee the country.

As Moscow, defying global condemnation and overwhelming political and economic isolation, claimed on Wednesday to have seized the first large city of its campaign and the Ukrainian president accused it of aiming to “erase” his country, the World Health Organization said some health supplies were already starting to run out.

“We are moving closer to a humanitarian crisis,” Jarno Hubicht, the WHO representative in Ukraine, said. “This is moving very fast. Health service provisions are being moved to shelters and basements. We are concerned about electricity provision, oxygen and medicines.”

WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the group was also working to verify multiple reports of “attacks on health facilities and health workers”, adding that attacks on healthcare would be “a violation of international humanitarian law”.

In New York, the UN general assembly voted overwhelmingly to deplore Russia’s attack “in the strongest possible terms” and demand the immediate withdrawal of its forces, after Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, compared the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to Hitler.

Kyslytsya said the invasion was intended “to deprive Ukraine of the very right to exist”, adding: “They have come to resolve the Ukrainian issue. More than 80 years ago, another dictator tried to finally resolve the issue of another people. He failed.”

A second round of talks between the two sides is due to get under way on Thursday, Russian negotiators reportedly said, adding that a ceasefire was “on the agenda”. However, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, has said Moscow’s demands are unacceptable and Russia must stop bombing cities if any progress is to be made.

More than 350 civilians, including 14 children, have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded since the invasion began, Ukraine’s emergency service said, adding that hundreds of buildings – transport facilities, hospitals, kindergartens, homes – had been destroyed. “Children, women and defence forces are losing their lives every hour,” it said.

The UN refugee agency said 836,000 people had now fled Ukraine, mostly women and children but including many foreign students and migrant workers, and the number was rising rapidly. At least 450,000 have crossed the border from Ukraine into Poland, the government in Warsaw said, with 113,000 arriving in Romania.

The UK and 37 other countries formally referred reports of atrocities committed in Ukraine to the international criminal court (ICC). Under ICC rules, such a referral from member states means that the prosecutor does not have to get the approval of ICC judges before opening an investigation, speeding up the process.

“With 37 countries joining the UK, it is the largest referral in the history of the ICC,” said Britain’s Foreign Office.

Later the ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, said he had actively begun an investigation into the war in Ukraine.

The European Commission on Wednesday proposed granting temporary protection to refugees from the Ukraine conflict, including a residence permit and access to employment and social welfare in all member states.

After seven days of fighting, the Russian defence ministry in Moscow claimed its forces had taken control of the strategically important city of Kherson on the Black Sea. Reports said contact had been established between Russian troops and the city council.

After repeated missile strikes on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, that have hit non-military buildings including a hospital and university and killed at least 25 civilians, Russian airborne troops landed in the city at about 3am on Wednesday, officials said, and were engaged in heavy fighting.

Kharkiv’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, said every fourth person in the city had relatives in Russia, but the city’s attitude to the country today was “completely different. We never expected this could happen: total destruction, annihilation, genocide against the Ukrainian people – this is unforgivable.”

Oleksiy Demchenko, a 27-year-old computer programmer in the city, said: “To tell the truth, it’s hell. They are hitting people’s houses, health facilities, parks. I think their goal is to break us psychologically because they want us to evacuate. But our army will protect us. People won’t surrender.”

The south-eastern city of Mariupol had also been under increasingly intense shelling since late on Tuesday night and was unable even to evacuate the wounded, according to its mayor, Vadym Boichenko. “Russian forces have been flattening us non-stop for 12 hours now,” he said.

Massed Russian forces also appeared to be preparing for a decisive advance on the capital, Kyiv. “The enemy is drawing up forces closer to the capital,” the city’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said. “Kyiv is holding and will hold. We are going to fight.”

In its first statement on casualties on Wednesday, the Russian defence ministry said 498 Russian soldiers had been killed in Ukraine since the beginning of its invasion, and 1,597 wounded.

A Ukrainian military adviser said more than 7,000 Russians have been killed and hundreds taken prisoner, including senior officers.

The Ukrainian president said Russia aimed to erase Ukraine, its history and its people. Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a short video statement that the west must do more to help his country.

He said a Russian missile attack on Kyiv that struck close to the Babyn Yar memorial, where occupying Nazi troops in the second world war massacred almost the entire Jewish population of the capital, showed how little many in Russia knew about Ukraine.

“They don’t know a thing about Kyiv, about our history,” Zelenskiy said. “But they all have orders to erase our history, erase our country, erase us all.” He urged EU governments to support Ukraine’s request for urgent accession to the bloc.

The Russian advance has been met by fiercer resistance than Moscow seems to have expected. US observers have said a long Russian armoured convoy north of Kyiv seems to have stalled, hampered by logistics issues including food and fuel shortages. Some units are reported to have low morale.


But military experts have said they are concerned Russia is shifting tactics, relying on the kind of heavy artillery and air bombardments it deployed in Chechnya and Syria to pulverise urban centres and crush defending forces’ resolve. Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, said Russia’s actions qualified as war crimes.

With its air force heavily outnumbered, Ukraine has called on Nato to establish a no-fly zone over the country, a request western governments are reluctant to consider because of the risk that it would bring the alliance into direct armed conflict with the world’s largest nuclear power.

Britain’s defence secretary, Ben Wallace, on Wednesday ruled out a no-fly zone, saying it would “lead to a war against Russia across the whole of Europe” but also prevent Ukrainian pilots being able to target Russian forces from the air, giving an advantage to Moscow’s stronger ground troops and tanks.

The Russian president has drawndrew global condemnation for ordering the invasion of Ukraine last Thursday, but the west has responded with sanctions aimed at shutting Russia’s economy off from the global financial system and forcing international companies to cut their ties with the aggressor.

The measures have sent the rouble plunging to historic lows and raised the prospect of severe recession in Russia. China, however, said on Wednesday it would not be joining western financial sanctions.


Luke Harding and Peter Beaumont in Lviv, and Jon Henley and Martin Farrer

The GuardianTramp

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