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By EVGENIY MALOLETKA and MSTYSLAV CHERNOV
MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) — A Russian airstrike on a Mariupol maternity hospital that killed three people drew outrage on Thursday, with Ukrainian and British officials branding it a war crime. As efforts to reach a broad cease-fire failed, emergency workers renewed efforts to get vital food and medical supplies into besieged cities, and to get traumatized residents out.
Mariupol’s city council and Ukraine’s president said a child was among the dead in Wednesday’s attack in the southern port. Another 17 people were wounded, including women waiting to give birth, doctors and children buried in the rubble.
Images of pregnant women covered in dust and blood dominated news reports in many countries, and brought a new wave of horror at the 2-week-old war sparked by Russia’s invasion, which has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians, driven more than 2 million people from Ukraine and shaken the foundations of European security.
Millions more have been displaced inside the country. Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko said Thursday that about 2 million people — half the residents of the metro area of the capital — have left the city, which has become virtually a a fortress.
“Every street, every house … is being fortified, the territorial defense is joining. Even people who in their lives never intended to change their clothes, now they are in uniform with machine guns in their hands,” he said in televised remarks.
Bombs also fell on two hospitals in Zhytomyr, west of the capital, Kyiv, the mayor said, as Russian forces intensified their siege of Ukrainian cities. The World Health Organization said it has confirmed 18 attacks on medical facilities since the Russian invasion began two weeks ago.
As the war entered its third week, Western officials said Russian forces have made little progress on the ground in recent days. But they have intensified the bombardment of Mariupol and other cities, trapping hundreds of thousands of people, with food and water running short.
Temporary cease-fires to allow evacuations and humanitarian aid have often faltered, with Ukraine accusing Russia of continuing their bombardments. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said 35,000 people managed to get out on Wednesday from several besieged towns, and more efforts were underway on Thursday from towns and cities in eastern and southern Ukraine — including Mariupol — as well as the Kyiv suburbs.
The Mariupol city council posted a video Thursday showing buses driving down a highway, with a note saying that a convoy bringing food and medicine was on the way despite several days of thwarted efforts to reach the city.
“Everyone is working to get help to the people of Mariupol. And it will come,” said Mayor Vadym Boychenko.
Images from the city, where hundreds have died and workers hurried to bury some of the bodies in a mass grave, have drawn condemnation from around the world. The living have resorted to breaking into shops for food or melting snow for water. The city has been without heat for days as nighttime temperatures fall below freezing and daytime ones hover just above it.
The ground shook more than a mile away when the series of blasts hit a children’s and maternity hospital in Mariupol. Explosions blew out windows and ripped away much of the front of one building. Police and soldiers rushed to the scene to evacuate victims, carrying a bleeding woman with a swollen belly on a stretcher past burning and mangled cars. Another woman wailed as she clutched her child.
Britain’s Armed Forces minister, James Heappey, said that whether hitting the hospital was “indiscriminate” fire into a built-up area or a deliberate targeting, “it is a war crime.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the attacks on innocent civilians “barbaric.”
Volodymir Nikulin, a top regional police official, standing in the ruins called the attack “a war crime without any justification.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed concerns about civilian casualties as “pathetic shrieks” from Russia’s enemies. He claimed without providing evidence that the Mariupol hospital had been seized by far-right radical fighters who were using it as a base — despite the fact that photographs from the aftermath show pregnant women and children at the site.
Several rounds of talks have not stopped the fighting, and a meeting in a Turkish Mediterranean resort between Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba failed to yield much common ground.
In their highest-level talks since the war began, Kuleba said the two sides discussed a 24-hour cease-fire but did not make progress. He said Russia was still seeking “surrender from Ukraine.”
“This is not what they are going to get,” he said, adding that he was willing to continue the dialogue.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, called for an “immediate cease-fire” in Ukraine, in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday.
Lavrov also said Russia was ready for more negotiations but showed no sign of softening Moscow’s demands. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin could meet with Zelenskyy but only after further negotiations about Russia’s broader grievances. Russia has alleged that western-looking, U.S.-backed Ukraine posed a threat to its security — but Western officials suspect Putin would like to install a government friendly to Moscow in Kyiv as part of efforts to draw the ex-Soviet state back into its orbit.
As the war enters its third week, Russia’s military is struggling, facing stronger than expected Ukrainian resistance and heavier losses of its own troops. But Putin’s invading force of more than 150,000 troops retains possibly insurmountable advantages in firepower as it bears down on key cities.
Despite often heavy shelling on populated areas, American military officials reported little change on the ground over the previous 24 hours, other than Russian progress against the cities of Kharkiv and Mykolaiv, in heavy fighting.
Western countries have sought to hasten the war’s end by imposing punishing sanctions on Russia, and a cascade of global companies have abandoned the country, plunging its economy into isolation.
Britain added more oligarchs to its sanctions list on Thursday, including Roman Abramovich, the billionaire Premier League soccer club Chelsea. The government said Abramovich’s assets — including Chelsea — were frozen, he was banned from visiting the U.K. and barred from transactions with U.K. individuals and businesses.
The fighting has repeatedly raised the specter of a nuclear disaster. It knocked out power to the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant on Wednesday, raising fears about the spent radioactive fuel stored there that must be kept cool. But the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said it saw “no critical impact on safety.”
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk pleaded Thursday with the Russian military to allow access for repair crews to restore electricity to the plant, and to fix a damaged gas pipeline in the south that has left Mariupol and other towns.
Associated Press journalists Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Felipe Dana and Andrew Drake in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed along with other reporters around the world.
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