The battle for Mariupol, where the regional governor said tens of thousands may have been killed, appeared to be reaching a decisive phase, with Ukrainian marines holed up in the Azovstal industrial district.
Should the Russians seize Azovstal, they would be in full control of Mariupol, the lynchpin between Russian-held areas to the west and east. The city has already been laid waste by weeks of Russian bombardments.
Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said the government was checking unverified information that Russia may have used chemical weapons while besieging Mariupol.
“There is a theory that these could be phosphorous munitions,” Malyar said in televised comments.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had said on Monday night that Russia could resort to chemical weapons as it massed troops in the eastern Donbas region for a new assault on Mariupol. He did not say if they actually had been used.
The United States and Britain said they were trying to verify the reports.
The governor of the eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said he had seen incident reports on possible chemical weapons use in Mariupol but could not confirm them.
“We know that last night around midnight a drone dropped some so-far unknown explosive device, and the people that were in and around the Mariupol metal plant, there were three people, they began to feel unwell,” he told CNN.
They were taken to hospital and their lives were not in danger, he said.
Asked about the total number of dead in Mariupol, Kyrylenko said: “We are currently discussing 20-22,000 people dead”, adding that the figure needed to be checked very carefully.
Chemical weapons production, use and stockpiling is banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Although condemned by human rights groups, white phosphorous is not banned under the CWC.
Russia’s defence ministry has not responded to a Reuters request for comment. Russian-backed separatist forces in the east denied using chemical weapons in Mariupol, the Interfax news agency reported.
But should it prove to be the case, it would mark a dangerous new development in a war that has already left a trail of death of destruction since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops over the border on Feb. 24.
About a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million population have been forced from their homes, cities turned into rubble, and thousands of people have been killed or injured – many of them civilians.
Putin calls the action a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine but it has drawn condemnation and alarm in the West, which has imposed a wide range of sanctions to squeeze the Russian economy.
After their troops got bogged down in the face of Ukrainian resistance, the Russians abandoned their bid to capture the capital Kyiv for now. They are redoubling their efforts in the east and Ukrainian forces are digging in to face a new offensive.
The governor of Luhansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, urged residents to evacuate using five humanitarian corridors agreed for the east.
“It’s far more scary to remain and burn in your sleep from a Russian shell,” he wrote on social media. “Evacuate, with every day the situation is getting worse. Take your essential items and head to the pickup point.”
In all, nine humanitarian corridors had been agreed for Tuesday, including one from Mariupol, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said that aside from trying to take control of Mariupol, Russian forces were intent on capturing Popasna, a town about two hours drive west of Luhansk, and were set to launch an offensive in the direction of Kurakhove in Donetsk.
Ukrainian troops had repulsed attacks in both Luhansk and Donetsk, it said.
President Zelenskiy pleaded overnight for more weapons from the West to help it end the siege of Mariupol and fend off the expected eastern offensive.
“Unfortunately we are not getting as much as we need to end this war faster…in particular, to lift the blockade of Mariupol,” he said.
Separately, in an address to the Lithuanian parliament, Zelenskiy urged the European Union to impose sanctions on all Russian banks and Russian oil and to set a deadline for ending imports of Russian gas.
“We cannot wait,” he said.
War crimes allegations
The departure of Russian forces from the outskirts of Kyiv brought to light allegations of war crimes, including executions and rape of civilians. Moscow dismisses these and has in turn accused Ukrainian forces of sexual violence.
United Nations official Sima Bahous told the Security Council on Monday: “We are increasingly hearing of rape and sexual violence.”.
Kateryna Cherepakha, president of rights group La Strada-Ukraine, told the council via video: “Violence and rape is used now as a weapon of war by Russian invaders in Ukraine.”
Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador denied the allegations. The Russian defence ministry said Ukraine’s government was being directed by the United States to sow false evidence of Russian violence against civilians despite what it said was Moscow’s “unprecedented measures to save civilians”.
Putin said on Tuesday Moscow’s military operation would undoubtedly achieve what he said were its “noble” objectives.
Speaking at a ceremony at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East, Putin was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies that Moscow had no choice but to act to protect Russia and that a clash with Ukraine’s anti-Russian forces had been inevitable.
He is scheduled to meet Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to discuss Ukraine and Western sanctions. Belarus is a staging area for Russian forces.