MARIUPOL (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - Russian forces stepped up their attacks in Ukraine on Saturday (March 19), advancing into the besieged city of Mariupol in a battle to seize the strategic port, and firing missiles in western Ukraine that destroyed an underground military munitions depot.
Russian forces bombed an art school in Mariupol, where about 400 residents had taken shelter, the city council said. There was no immediate word of casualties from the attack, although the council said the building was destroyed and there were victims under the rubble. Reuters could not independently verify the claim.
As fighting raged across the country, Ukraine was facing a worsening humanitarian crisis as losses mounted on both sides. A senior Ukrainian military official said Saturday that a Russian rocket attack had killed more than 40 soldiers in a Ukrainian military barracks in the southern city of Mykolaiv on Friday - one of the worst single losses suffered by Ukraine since the conflict erupted last month.
President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed directly to Russians to support a diplomatic resolution to the war, and added a stark warning.
"I want everyone to hear me now, especially in Moscow," Zelensky said in a video address hours after President Vladimir Putin had spoken to tens of thousands of Russians in a rally at Moscow's largest stadium.
"It's time to meet, time to talk. It is time to restore territorial integrity and justice for Ukraine. Otherwise, Russia's losses will be so huge that several generations will not be enough to rebound."
He repeated the Ukrainian military's claim that 14,000 Russian troops had been killed. The Pentagon estimates that the figure is about half that, still a staggering toll, one that US officials say the Kremlin has sought to cover up.
Some of the heaviest fighting on Saturday convulsed Mariupol, the south-east port city that the Russians have besieged since the conflict's early days.
Street battles broke out there as Russian troops moved into the city after weeks of devastating missile barrages turned it into a wasteland of bombed-out buildings. Dead bodies dot the streets and thousands remain trapped with no heat or water.
Some 400,000 people have been trapped in Mariupol for more than two weeks, sheltering from heavy bombardment that has severed central supplies of electricity, heating and water, according to local authorities.
Rescue workers were still searching for survivors in a Mariupol theatre that local authorities say was flattened by Russian air strikes on Wednesday. Russia denies hitting the theatre or targeting civilians.
Russia's Defence Ministry said in a statement that it was "tightening the noose" around the city. And the Ukrainian government reported that its forces were outgunned, that attempts to provide air support had failed and that it had "temporarily" lost contact with officials in Mariupol.
If Russian forces should seize Mariupol, it would be one of the few major cities they have taken and would give them control of much of the southern coast of Ukraine.
In a late night broadcast, Zelensky said the siege of Mariupol would "go down in history of responsibility for war crimes".
"To do this to a peaceful city... is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come."
Sounding a note of resignation, an adviser to the Ukrainian president said Friday: "There is no chance for lifting the siege of Mariupol."
Air raid sirens sounded across major Ukrainian cities early on Sunday but there were no immediate reports of fresh attacks.
Mariupol's city council said Russian forces forcefully deported several thousand people from the besieged city last week, after Russia had spoken of “refugees” arriving from the strategic port.
“The occupiers illegally took people from the Livoberezhniy district and from the shelter in the sports club building, where more than a thousand people (mostly women and children) were hiding from the constant bombing.” Reuters could not independently verify the claims.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said busses carrying refugees from Mariupol began to arrive to Russia on Tuesday, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. The ministry was not immediately available to comment on the Mariupol city council’s claims.