Russian bombs have “completely destroyed” a children’s and maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukrainian authorities have said, as shelling again halted mass evacuations from several cities, including the devastated southern port where conditions are described as “apocalyptic”.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmitryo Kuleba, accused Russia of “holding 400,000 people hostage” in Mariupol, much of whose population has been without power, heat, water or phone signal for over a week, while the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, denounced an atrocity.
“A children’s hospital, a maternity ward. How did they threaten the Russian Federation? What is this country, the Russian Federation, that is afraid of hospitals, maternity wards and is destroying them?” said Zelenskiy on Telegram.
“Hospitals and schools are destroyed. Churches and ordinary buildings are destroyed. People are killed. Children are killed. The aerial bombing of a children’s hospital is the ultimate evidence that genocide of Ukrainians is happening.”
Amid western warnings that Moscow’s invasion was about to become even more brutal as the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, seeks to regain stalled momentum, local authorities described the damage to the hospital – a combined 600-bed complex with children’s and maternity wards – as “colossal” and said at least 17 people had been wounded, including women in labour.
The deputy mayor, Sergei Orlov, said the city was being shelled continuously and 1,170 residents had died, 47 of whom were buried in a mass grave on Wednesday. “It’s medieval,” he said. “It’s pure genocide. The attack isn’t simply treacherous. It’s a war crime. They are attacking us with aviation, shells, multiple rocket launchers.”
The Guardian was unable to fully verify the Ukrainian officials’ accounts, but video published by the Associated Press showed multiple injured people at the site of the hospital attack.
The Red Cross has described conditions in the port city as “apocalyptic”, while deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the situation was “catastrophic” and Zelenskiy compared the devastation and suffering there to that caused by the Nazis.
Journalists have described corpses lying unburied in the streets and hungry residents breaking into stores in search of food and melting snow for water, while thousands sheltered in basements.
The Russian army had also “shot and bombed” a humanitarian corridor agreed with Moscow and intended to allow civilians a safe route out, the deputy mayor of the city said, mined the road, and installed a checkpoint. Of an estimated 200,000 people desperate to leave, only 2,000 to 3,000 a day were able to.
Ukrainian authorities said earlier the corridors should allow residents of the heavily bombarded cities of Mariupol, Enerhodar, Sumy, Izyum and Volnovakha, as well as towns around Kyiv including Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel, to leave, calling on Russian forces to respect an “official public commitment” to cease fire.
The governor of Sumy, from which 7,000 civilians – including 1,700 foreign students – managed to flee on Tuesday, said civilian cars were driving out of the north-eastern city along the same safe route to Poltava, further to the west, with priority for pregnant women, women with children, and elderly and disabled people.
But while the mayor of Enerhodar in the north-west said a convoy of mainly vulnerable civilians had been evacuated from the city, and Kyiv’s deputy mayor said authorities hoped to help some more people escape from Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel, there was little evidence the corridors were working elsewhere.
Civilians were unable to evacuate from Izyum because of continued Russian shelling in the eastern Kharkiv region, said the regional governor, Oleh Synyehubov, adding that buses intended to evacuate them were still waiting at the entrance to the town.
Zelenskiy said on Wednesday the threat level against the country was “at the maximum” and again called on the west to impose a no-fly zone, saying it risked a “humanitarian catastrophe” if it did not.
He called the Russians “Nazis” in an interview with Sky News, saying: “If you are united against the Nazis and this terror, you have to close. Don’t wait for me ask you several times, a million times. Close the sky.” He warned that otherwise “millions” of people could die.
Speaking in Washington, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, reiterated the Nato position that a no-fly zone would bring Nato into direct conflict with Russia.
The head of the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, said on Wednesday that up to 2.2 million people had fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on 24 February. The head of the UN’s World Food Programme said it expects to have to help more than 3 million refugees from Ukraine with food donations.
With food becoming an increasingly urgent concern inside the country, Ukraine’s government on Wednesday banned wheat exports that are critical to global food supplies in an attempt to ward off food shortages and hunger.
Amid international alarm over the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear plants, several of which are now in Russian hands, Kyiv called for a ceasefire to allow the electricity supply to be restored to Chernobyl, saying the defunct plant had been disconnected from the grid. Russia’s defence ministry said Ukrainian forces had attacked power lines in a “dangerous provocation”.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), however, said the loss of power at the plant did not have an imminent impact on safety – although it said it was very concerned about the lack of staff rotation at the plant, which requires constant management to prevent another nuclear disaster.
As fighting continued across the country, Ukraine’s general staff said on Wednesday its armed forces were building up defences in cities in the north, south and east, and that forces around Kyiv were “holding the line” and resisting an apparently stalled Russian offensive with unspecified strikes.
The British Ministry of Defence said in its latest assessment of the military situation that fighting north-west of Kyiv was “ongoing” and Russian forces were “failing to make any significant breakthroughs”.
The ministry’s assessment said the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol “remain encircled and continue to suffer heavy Russian shelling”. The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said Russia’s assault was about to become “more brutal and more indiscriminate”.
The UK said the Russians had confirmed the use of a thermobaric rocket system. The weapons, also known as vacuum bombs, suck in oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion.
Three rounds of peace talks between the two sides have so far yielded no progress, with Moscow continuing to insist Ukraine must “demilitarise” and enshrine neutrality in its constitution before it halts what it calls a “special military operation” aimed at ensuring Russia’s security. Moscow insisted on Wednesday it would prefer to reach its goals through negotiation.
The foreign ministry in Moscow repeated allegations the US was supporting a military biological programme in Ukraine involving deadly pathogens including plague, cholera and anthrax, claiming Russian forces had uncovered evidence of the alleged programme. Washington and Kyiv have strongly denied the claims, which the US has previously described as “absurd” misinformation.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, was due to meet his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, and the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, on the sidelines of a summit being hosted on Wednesday in the resort city of Antalya by Turkey, a Nato member.
Russia said on Wednesday that it was working on a “broad response” to an unprecedented range of international financial and economic sanctions that appear certain to plunge Russia’s economy into its gravest crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.