Ukrainian forces have been bolstered by the dramatic destruction of a major Russian landing ship as it brought in supplies to its troops, as Moscow was accused of forcibly deporting thousands of people from the besieged city of Mariupol.
As Ukrainian forces struggled to hold the flattened city, it was claimed that civilians in captured territory were being deceived into leaving shelters to be bussed out to Russian camps by soldiers wielding loudhailers.
Officials said 15,000 residents of the encircled city had been deported so far after being told by the soldiers that Ukraine had abandoned them, with some sent as far as the Russian island of Sakhalin in the Pacific.
Ukraine’s ministry of defence described the move as “a gross violation of international humanitarian law and another proof of Russia’s behaviour as a terrorist state”.
Nevertheless, as Ukraine’s Azov battalion appeared to be fighting a losing battle in Mariupol, elsewhere Russian forces have failed to advance – and a significant boost to morale was delivered with the sinking of the Orsk, a ship that had ferried soldiers destined for the besieged city.
Dramatic pictures were aired of billowing fire and black smoke as the Orsk, docked in Berdiansk on the Azov Sea, was hit by Ukrainian ballistic missiles.
The ship, which contained weapons and supplies for forces fighting in Mariupol, had featured in a report on Russian television just a few days previously.
It was said to be capable of carrying 20 tanks, 45 armoured vehicles and 400 troops. The fire on the Orsk reportedly spread to other vessels as well as an ammunition depot and a fuel terminal in the port.
The situation, however, remains grave in Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said, with attempts to evacuate the remaining 100,000 residents blocked by Russian troops.
Russian soldiers with loudhailers were instead said to be driving around parts of the city claiming that the city of Odesa has fallen and that other havens for refugees were now rejecting fleeing people.
Ukraine’s ministry of defence claimed that those evacuated by the Russians were being taken to “filtration camps” such as one in Dokuchaievsk, in the self-proclaimed republic in Donetsk, before being moved onwards to Russia itself.
“A number of northern regions are mentioned as the final destination, including Sakhalin,” the defence ministry said. “Ukrainians are being offered official employment through employment centres. Those who agree receive documents banning them from leaving Russian regions for two years.”
Mariupol’s mayor, Vadym Boichenko, said the tactic had echoes of the tactics of the Nazis during the second world war.
He said: “What the Russian occupiers are doing cannot be explained. At first, they blockade a peaceful city, purposefully start killing people, and then forcibly deport them to their territory.
“Ukraine experienced this only during world war two. Unfortunately, history repeats itself. Only now instead of Nazis – racists. Now we are forming a base of deported Mariupol residents and will work on their return to Ukraine.”
Claims of attacks on civilians elsewhere in Ukraine, denied by the Kremlin, continue to be made in growing numbers.
Russia was accused on Thursday by Ukraine’s human rights commissioner, Lyudmila Denisova, of breaching the Geneva conventions by firing rockets filled with white phosphorus in a residential part of the city of Rubizhne in the self-proclaimed republic in Luhansk, killing four and wounding six.
It was reported that desperate attempts were also being made to rescue people, including a pregnant woman and six children, from a shelter in Shchastynska, in Luhansk, after the office building in which they were hiding was bombed.