Mariupol faces further bombardment as massive convoy outside Kyiv disperses to surrounding areas

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Russian forces kept up their bombardment of the port city of Mariupol on Thursday, while satellite photos showed that a massive convoy of Russian forces that had been positioned outside the Ukrainian capital split up and fanned out into towns and forests near Kyiv, with artillery pieces moved into firing positions.

A destroyed tank is seen on Thursday after battles between Ukrainian and Russian forces on a main road near Brovary, Ukraine, north of the capital of Kyiv.(Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

Russian forces kept up their bombardment of the port city of Mariupol on Thursday while satellite photos showed that a massive convoy of Russian forces that had been positioned outside the Ukrainian capital split up and fanned out into towns and forests near Kyiv, with artillery pieces moved into firing positions.

International condemnation escalated over an airstrike in Mariupol a day earlier that killed three people at a maternity hospital. Western and Ukrainian officials called the attack a war crime. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian refusal to permit evacuations from the port city amounted to "outright terror."

Meanwhile, the highest-level talks held since the invasion began two weeks ago yielded no progress, the number of refugees fleeing the country topped 2.3 million, and Kyiv braced for an onslaught, its mayor boasting that the capital had become practically a fortress protected by armed civilians.

Satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies showed that the 64-kilometre convoy of vehicles, tanks and artillery has broken up and been redeployed, the company said. Armoured units were seen in towns near the Antonov Airport north of the city. Some of the vehicles have moved into forests, Maxar reported, with towed howitzers nearby in position to open fire.

The convoy had massed outside the city early last week, but its advance appeared to have stalled amid reports of food and fuel shortages. U.S. officials said Ukrainian troops also targeted the convoy with anti-tank missiles.

A U.S. defence official speaking on condition of anonymity said some vehicles were seen moving off the road into the tree line in recent days, but the official could not confirm whether the convoy had dispersed.

Explosions are seen during shelling in a residential district in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Thursday.(Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

In Mariupol, a southern seaport of 430,000 people, the situation was increasingly dire as civilians trapped inside the city scrounged for food and fuel. More than 1,300 people have died in the 10-day siege of the frigid city, said Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.

Residents have no heat or phone service, and many have no electricity. Nighttime temperatures are regularly below freezing, and daytime ones normally hover just above it. Bodies are being buried in mass graves. The streets are littered with burned-out cars, broken glass and splintered trees.

Bodies are put into a mass grave on Wednesday on the outskirts of Mariupol. People are struggling to bury their dead because of heavy shelling by Russian forces. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

"They have a clear order to hold Mariupol hostage, to mock it, to constantly bomb and shell it," Zelensky said in his nightly video address to the nation. He said the Russians began a tank attack right where there was supposed to be a humanitarian corridor.

On Thursday, firefighters tried to free a boy trapped in the rubble. One grasped the boy's hand. His eyes blinked, but he was otherwise still. It was not clear if he survived. Nearby, at a mangled truck, a woman wrapped in a blue blanket shuddered at the sound of an explosion.

Death and desperation

Grocery stores and pharmacies were emptied days ago by people breaking in to get supplies, according to a local official with the Red Cross, Sacha Volkov. A black market is operating for vegetables, meat is unavailable, and people are stealing gasoline from cars, Volkov said.

Places protected from bombings are hard to find, with basements reserved for women and children, he said. Residents, Volkov said, are turning on one another: "People started to attack each other for food."

An injured pregnant woman walks downstairs in the maternity hospital in Mariupol damaged by shelling Wednesday.(Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

One resident, Aleksander Ivanov, pulled a cart loaded with bags down an empty street flanked by damaged buildings.

"I don't have a home anymore. That's why I'm moving," he said. "It doesn't exist anymore. It was hit, by a mortar."

Repeated attempts to send in food and medicine and evacuate civilians have been thwarted by Russian shelling, Ukrainian authorities said.

"They want to destroy the people of Mariupol. They want to make them starve," Vereshchuk said. "It's a war crime."

Zelensky says invasion will backfire

All told, some 100,000 people have been evacuated during the past two days from seven cities under Russian blockade in the north and centre of the country, including the Kyiv suburbs, Zelensky said.

Zelensky told Russian leaders that the invasion will backfire on them as their economy is strangled.

Western sanctions have already dealt a severe blow, causing the ruble to plunge, foreign businesses to flee and prices to rise sharply.

"You will definitely be prosecuted for complicity in war crimes," Zelensky said in a video address. "And then, it will definitely happen, you will be hated by Russian citizens — everyone whom you have been deceiving constantly, daily, for many years in a row, when they feel the consequences of your lies in their wallets, in their shrinking possibilities, in the stolen future of Russian children."

Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed such talk, saying the country has endured sanctions before.

"Just as we overcame these difficulties in the previous years, we will overcome them now," he said at a televised meeting of government officials. He did, however, acknowledge the sanctions create "certain challenges."

In addition to those who have fled Ukraine, millions have been driven from their homes inside Ukraine. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Thursday that about two million people — half the population of the metropolitan area — have left the capital.

"Every street, every house … is being fortified, the territorial defence 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."

This animated GIF shows satellite images before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and on Wednesday, after grocery stores and shopping malls are destroyed in western Mariupol.(Maxar Technologies)

On Thursday, a 14-year-old girl named Katya was recovering at the Brovary Central District Hospital on the outskirts of Kyiv after her family was ambushed as they tried to flee the area. She was shot in the hand when their car was raked with gunfire from a roadside forest, said her mother, who identified herself only as Nina.

The girl's father, who drove frantically from the ambush on blown-out tires, underwent surgery. His wife said he had been shot in the head and had two fingers blown off.

Residents evacuate the city of Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday. Kyiv's northwest suburbs such as Irpin and Bucha have been enduring shellfire and bombardments for more than a week, prompting a mass evacuation effort.(Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Western officials said Russian forces have made little progress on the ground in recent days and are seeing heavier losses and stiffer Ukrainian resistance than Moscow apparently anticipated. But Putin's forces have used airpower and artillery to pummel Ukraine's cities.

Early in the day, the Mariupol city council posted a video showing a convoy it said was bringing food and medicine. But as night fell, it was unclear if those buses had reached the city.

A child was among those killed in the hospital airstrike Wednesday. Seventeen people were also wounded, including women waiting to give birth, doctors, and children buried in the rubble. Images of the attack, with pregnant women covered in dust and blood, dominated news reports in many countries.

Putin choosing to target civilians: Trudeau

French President Emmanuel Macron called the airstrike on the hospital "a shameful and immoral act of war." Britain's Armed Forces minister, James Heappey, said that whether the hospital was hit by indiscriminate fire or deliberately targeted, "it is a war crime."

People fill sandbags to make barricades on Kyiv's Maidan Square. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris, on a visit to Ukraine's neighbour Poland, backed calls for an international war-crimes investigation into the invasion, saying "the eyes of the world are on this war and what Russia has done in terms of this aggression and these atrocities."

Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau was also in Warsaw on Thursday to meet with Polish leaders and Harris. He said Putin had made a choice to "specifically target civilians" and any further targeting of civilians in Ukraine is going to be met with the "severest of responses."

"Putin's callous disregard for human life is absolutely unacceptable. It is very clear that he has made the choice to specifically target civilians now," Trudeau told reporters.

Russia hits back against criticism

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed concerns about civilian casualties as "pathetic shrieks" from Russia's enemies, and denied Ukraine had even been invaded.

Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, held talks in a Turkish resort in their first meeting since the invasion.

The two sides discussed a 24-hour cease-fire but made no progress, Kuleba said. He said Russia still wanted Ukraine to surrender but insisted that will not happen.

A Ukrainian soldier hugs his wife in Irpin on Thursday.(Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Lavrov said Russia is ready for more negotiations, but he showed no sign of softening Moscow's demands.

Russia has alleged that Western-looking, U.S.-backed Ukraine posed a threat to its security. Western officials suspect Putin would like to install a government friendly to Moscow in Kyiv as part of an effort to draw the former Soviet state back into its orbit.

In Vienna, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said it had scheduled inspections of Ukraine's nuclear facilities. Rafael Grossi would give no details on how or when the inspections would take place.

Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors at four power plants across the country, plus the closed plant in Chornobyl, scene of a 1986 nuclear disaster. Fighting around Chornobyl and another plant have raised global fears of another disaster.

Anger in Kharkiv

In Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, 91-year-old Alevtina Shernina sat wrapped in a blanket, an electric heater at her feet, as cold air blew in through a damaged window. She survived the brutal Second World War siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Russia.

Kharkiv Governor's Palace, the seat of the regional government, was bombed March 1. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Her daughter-in-law, Natalia, said she was angry that Shernina "began her life in Leningrad under the siege as a girl who was starving, who lived in cold and hunger, and she's ending her life" in similar circumstances.

"There were fascists there and there are fascists here who came and bombed our buildings and windows," she said.

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