Thousands of Ukrainian children have been “kidnapped” by Vladimir Putin’s forces and taken to Russia, Kyiv has claimed.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that 2,389 children had been transported across the border from the eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“This is not assistance. It is kidnapping,” the US embassy in Kyiv tweeted, citing the ministry. The ministry called it a “gross violation of international law”.
Although it could not be independently verified, the kidnapping claim comes after authorities in Mariupol said several thousand of its residents had been forcibly deported to Russia. There were also claims on Tuesday that Russia was planning to kidnap Ukrainians protesting against the invading forces and take them across the border.
Moscow continues to besiege cities throughout Ukraine, including Mariupol, which has been largely destroyed after more than three weeks of Russian shelling.
Describing the aftermath of two large bombs that struck Mariupol on Tuesday, the local council said the city had been turned into the “ashes of a dead land”.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky echoed this assessment. “There is nothing left there,” he told Italy’s parliament via video link on Tuesday. Russian forces were said to be inside the flattened city on Tuesday evening.
Located on the Sea of Azov, the port city was home to 400,000 people before the Russian invasion. Civilians there are struggling with limited supplies of food and water, with most people unable to flee because of frequent Russian bombardments.
Some have managed to escape the city. One exhausted Mariupol survivor was shaking as she arrived by train in the western city of Lviv on Tuesday. “There’s no connection with the world. We couldn’t ask for help,” said Julia Krytska, who was helped by volunteers to escape with her husband and son. “People don’t even have water there.”
The humanitarian situation is also desperate in other parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of civilians are running out of food in Kherson, the only major city to have fallen to Russian forces, according to the authorities in Kyiv.
Steve Gordon, a humanitarian response adviser for Mercy Corps, who visited the eastern city of Kharkiv on Tuesday, warned of severe food shortages across the country. Ukrainian civil organisations are leading the aid efforts but they can only do so much, he said.
The NGO worker said areas that are experiencing the most intense fighting might only have three or four days of food supplies left. “In Sumy and Kharkiv, we believe at a minimum 70 per cent of the population is entirely reliant on aid – higher in some pockets,” he added.
Russia is still struggling to make military gains in Ukraine, the latest report from British military intelligence suggests.
On Tuesday, explosions and bursts of gunfire shook Kyiv, as Russian forces sought to encircle and capture several of the capital’s suburban areas. Ukraine said it had driven Russian forces from the Kyiv suburb of Makariv after a fierce battle.
Ukraine’s military claimed Russian soldiers had been forced to retreat and call in extra troops. The General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces said Russia had suffered “large, irreversible” losses of personnel.
A western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in respect of the military assessments that Ukrainian resistance had brought much of Russia’s advance to a halt, but had not sent its forces into retreat.
Russian forces, western officials claim, are facing serious shortages of food, fuel and cold weather gear, leaving some soldiers suffering from frostbite. Many only have three days’ worth of supplies left.
Given the Russians’ frustrations on the ground, the US warned again that a desperate Kremlin might resort to using chemical or biological weapons. US president Joe Biden said Vladimir Putin’s “back is against the wall”.
Britain said it would urge Nato later this week to step up supplies of weapons to Ukraine, while Moscow said it would only use nuclear weapons if “its very existence was threatened”.
As a result of the fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia is thought to have lost thousands of troops. Although the Kremlin has only confirmed the deaths of 498 personnel in the war so far, the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda published an article on Monday suggesting that 9,861 Russian servicemen had been killed and another 16,153 injured.
The paper later took down the figures, blaming their inclusion on an alleged hacker. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he would not comment on the incident.
Thousands of civilians have also been killed, and the invasion has driven more than 10 million people from their homes, almost a quarter of Ukraine’s population, according to the United Nations. More than 3.5 million people have now fled the country, and more than 2 million have crossed the Polish border.
The largest flow of refugees in Europe since the Second World War has left countries struggling to cope as they try to provide accommodation and vital services such as education.
As part of a series of addresses to foreign parliaments, Mr Zelensky urged Italian MPs to strengthen sanctions against Moscow, noting that many wealthy Russians have homes in the country. “Don’t be a resort for murderers,” he said from Kyiv.