Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday said it was impossible to say for certain whether Russian forces used chemical weapons in Mariupol, noting investigators would be unable to conduct a proper probe in the besieged city.
In an early morning address, Zelensky said what he called repeated threats by some in Russia to use chemical weapons meant that the West needed to act now to prevent such weapons from being deployed. He did not give details, but he said he took the threat of chemical weapons use ‘very seriously.
Zelensky’s early morning address came after the United States said Tuesday it has ‘credible information’ that Russia may use ‘chemical agents’ in its offensive to take the besieged port city.
While the West and Kyiv have been warning Moscow since the start of its invasion on February 24 against any use of chemical weapons, fears have grown this week after unconfirmed reports emerged that such weapons may have already been deployed.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his country had gained information that suggested Russia could ‘use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents’ to clear our the remaining Ukrainian troops inside the city.
Russian soldiers patrol at the Mariupol drama theatre, hit last March 16 by an airstrike, on April 12, 2022 in Mariupol, as Russian troops intensify a campaign to take the strategic port city
In his address, the Zelensky also mocked Moscow’s insistence that the war against his nation was going well, asking how President Vladimir Putin could have approved a plan that involved so many Russians dying.
Putin, speaking on Tuesday, said Russia would achieve all of its ‘noble’ aims and ‘rhythmically and calmly’ continue what it calls a special operation.
Moscow said on March 25, its most recent update, that 1,351 soldiers had been killed since the start of the campaign. Ukraine says the real number is closer to 20,000.
‘In Russia it was once again said that their so-called ‘special operation’ is supposedly going according to plan. But, to be honest, no one in the world understands how such a plan could even come about,’ Zelensky said in a video address.
‘How could a plan that provides for the death of tens of thousands of their own soldiers in a little more than a month of war come about? Who could approve such a plan?’ he asked.
Zelensky asked how many dead Russian soldiers would be acceptable to Putin, giving a range of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
Moscow had lost more men in 48 days since the war started than in the 10-year Afghan war from 1979 to 1989, he said.
Zelensky said that while some had made fun of the Russians, their failures in the field and inferior technology, their opponents were not all hopeless.
‘We must understand that not all Russian tanks are stuck in fields, not all enemy soldiers simply flee the battlefield and not all of them are conscripts who do not know how to hold weapons properly,’ he said.
‘This does not mean that we should be afraid of them. This means that we must not diminish the accomplishments of our fighters, our army.’
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday said it was impossible to say for certain about whether Russian forces had used chemical weapons in Mariupol, noting investigators would be unable to conduct a proper probe in the besieged city of Mariupol
The president’s address came after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Tuesday that it was ‘concerned’ by allegations that chemical weapons had been used in Mariupol, a strategic port city besieged by Russian forces in the east of Ukraine and the scene of heavy fighting.
The OPCW, to which both Russia and Ukraine belong, referred to ‘accusations levelled by both sides around possible misuse of toxic chemicals.’
The Ukrainian Azov battalion, which is engaged in the defence of Mariupol, said Monday that a Russian drone had dropped a ‘poisonous substance’ on soldiers and civilians in Mariupol.
The battalion claimed people were experiencing respiratory failure and neurological problems following the alleged attack.
‘Three people have clear signs of poisoning by warfare chemicals, but without catastrophic consequences,’ battalion leader Andrei Biletsky said in a video message on Telegram.
He accused the Russians of using chemical weapons during a strike on the city’s large Azovstal metallurgical plant.
The accusation has not been confirmed by any independent source, although Ukrainians, British and Americans have said they are trying to verify it.
Blinken said Tuesday he was ‘not in a position to confirm’ the allegations.
But he continued: ‘We had credible information that Russian forces may use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents that would cause stronger symptoms to weaken and incapacitate entrenched Ukrainian fighters and civilians, as part of the aggressive campaign to take Mariupol.’
‘We share that information with Ukraine… and we’re in direct conversation with partners to try to determine what actually is happening, so this is a real concern,’ Blinken told reporters.
News organisations have also been unable to verify the Azov battalion’s claims, which were also shared by Ukrainian lawmakers.
This satellite image released on April 12, 2022, by Maxar Technologies shows buildings on fire in western Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 9, 2022
Much of the city of Mariupol has been leveled in weeks of pummelling by Russian troops
The mayor of Mariupol said Monday that the siege has left more than 10,000 civilians dead, their bodies ‘carpeted through the streets.’ Mayor Vadym Boychenko said the death toll in Mariupol alone could surpass 20,000
Mariupol has been under siege for weeks, and Ukrainian forces are warning of its imminent fall.
United States State Department spokesman Ned Price said America was ‘ready to assist’ with the investigation. He said US officials ‘already have been in direct conversations with our Ukrainian partners as they are collecting facts and evidence.’
‘We do stand ready to assist in case we can be useful in terms of that investigation,’ he said, adding that the US concerns were based on ‘recent information that was available to us before the reports emerged yesterday.’
Pavlo Kirilenko, the Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region, said that several people had suffered damage to their airways after the drone strike in Mariupol.
‘Last night, around midnight, a drone launched an explosive device and three people who were in the area of the Mariupol metallurgical plant, or near it, felt unwell’ and had to be hospitalized, Kirilenko told the US news channel CNN, according to a translation provided by the Ukrainian news agency Interfax-Ukraine.
Their lives did not appear to be in danger, he said, but ‘from the damage to the airways and skin, we understand that it is a chemical substance. But it is too early to say that it is a gas and to draw conclusions.’
Kirilenko said he wanted to verify ‘100 percent’ the nature of the substance before making more formal accusations.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the use of chemical weapons ‘would be a callous escalation in this conflict,’ while Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said it would be a ‘wholesale breach of international law.’
U.S. President Joe Biden for the first time referred to Russia’s invasion as a ‘genocide.’
He was even blunter later Tuesday, repeating the term and saying: ‘It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe the idea of even being a Ukrainian.’
Service members of pro-Russian troops ride an armoured vehicle during fighting in Ukraine-Russia conflict near a plant of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works company in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 12, 2022
Russian soldier patrols in a street of Mariupol on April 12, 2022
A picture taken during a visit to Mariupol organised by the Russian military shows destruction inside the destroyed Drama Theatre in Mariupol, Ukraine, 12 April 2022. At least 300 people died after a Russian airstrike on the Drama Theatre of Mariupol on 16 March
Adding to the catalogue of horrors emerging from Ukraine, Zelensky sounded the alarm Tuesday about snowballing allegations of rape and sexual assault by Russian forces.
‘Hundreds of cases of rape have been recorded, including those of young girls and very young children. Even of a baby!’ the Ukrainian leader told Lithuanian lawmakers via video link.
In the latest discovery fuelling allegations of Russian atrocities, Ukrainian prosecutors said six people had been found shot dead in the basement of a building outside the capital.
While the toll on towns occupied during the month-long offensive to take Kyiv is still coming to light, the heaviest civilian toll is feared to be in Mariupol, where Zelensky said he believed Russia had killed ‘tens of thousands.’
AFP journalists in Mariupol, as part of a Russian military embed, witnessed the charred remains of the city, including the theatre where 300 people were feared killed in Russian bombardment last month.
As fighting dragged toward its seventh week, the Ukrainian army was fighting desperately to defend strategically located Mariupol.
Moscow is believed to be trying to connect occupied Crimea with Russian-backed separatist territories Donetsk and Lugansk in Donbas, and has laid siege to the city, once home to more than 400,000 people.
Much of the city has been leveled in weeks of pummeling by Russian troops.
The mayor said Monday that the siege has left more than 10,000 civilians dead, their bodies ‘carpeted through the streets.’ Mayor Vadym Boychenko said the death toll in Mariupol alone could surpass 20,000.
Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak acknowledged the challenges Ukrainian troops face in Mariupol. He said via Twitter that they remain blocked and are having issues with supplies, while Ukraine’s president and generals ‘do everything possible (and impossible) to find a solution.’
Members of an international team of war crimes prosecutors and Prosecutor General of Ukraine Iryna Venediktova during a visit to a mass grave in Bucha, Kyiv area, Ukraine, 12 April
Members of the international team of war crimes prosecutors including French Gendarmerie IRCGN speak to Prosecutor General of Ukraine Iryna Venediktova (centre) during a visit to a mass grave in Bucha, Kyiv area, Ukraine, 12 April 2022
Heavy bombardment continued in Ukraine’s east as civilians were urged to flee ahead of an expected Russian troop surge around the Donbas region, notably near the town of Izyum – adding to the 10 million people already displaced by fighting.
A steady stream of residents fled by bus and train from Kramatorsk – the Ukrainian military’s main hub for its operations in the east – and neighbouring Sloviansk as fears grew that the cities would be key targets.
‘What is happening is inhuman, (Putin) is a fascist. I don’t know what to call him – a devil incarnate,’ said 82-year-old Valentina Oleynikova, who was fleeing Kramatorsk with her husband.
In the war-torn eastern town of Volnovakha, now under Moscow’s control, a school reopened with children listening to a recording of the Russian anthem, watched by armed soldiers.
After two weeks of bombardment, many houses, shops and public buildings are now semi-ruined, windowless or burnt out.
Meanwhile on on Wednesday, Zelensky offered to swap pro-Kremlin oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who was arrested by Kyiv after escaping house arrest, for Ukrainians captured by Russia.
‘I propose to the Russian Federation to exchange this guy of yours for our boys and our girls who are now in Russian captivity,’ Zelensky said in a video address posted on Telegram in the early hours of Wednesday.
‘And may Medvedchuk be an example for you. Even the former oligarch did not escape. What can we say about much simpler criminals from the Russian hinterland? We will get everyone.’
Ukrainian authorities on Tuesday announced they had captured the prominent pro-Kremlin tycoon who escaped from house arrest after Russia’s invasion.
Zelensky posted a picture online of a disheveled-looking Medvedchuk with his hands in cuffs and dressed in a Ukrainian army uniform.
‘A special operation was carried out by the Security Service of Ukraine. Well done!’ Zelensky wrote on Telegram, announcing Medvedchuk’s capture.
Security agency chief Ivan Bakanov said agents had carried out a ‘lightning-fast and dangerous multi-level special operation to detain’ the Russia-friendly lawmaker and leader of the ‘Opposition Platform – For Life’ party.
Medvedchuk, one of the richest people in Ukraine, is a hugely controversial figure for his close ties to Moscow. The 67-year-old business tycoon counts Russian President Vladimir Putin among his personal friends and says the Kremlin leader is godfather to his youngest daughter Darya.
He was being held under house arrest since last year on treason charges over accusations of attempting to steal natural resources from Russia-annexed Crimea and of handing Ukrainian military secrets to Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday published a photo (pictured) of prominent pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk in handcuffs after what he said was an operation by security forces
‘You can be a pro-Russian politician and work for the aggressor state for years. You may be hiding from justice lately. You can even wear a Ukrainian military uniform for camouflage… But will it help you escape punishment? Not at all! Shackles are waiting for you,’ Ukraine’s national security agency wrote on twitter.
The Russian president was furious when Medvedchuk – a former lawyer and Ukraine’s most prominent pro-Russia politician – was placed under house arrest and charged with high treason
He was also said to be angry when Medvedchuk’s three TV stations were blocked for allegedly spreading Russian misinformation.
Operatives ‘conducted this lightning-fast and dangerous multi-level special operation’, the head of SBU Ivan Bakanov said.
A Kremlin spokesman was cited by the Tass news agency as saying he had seen the photo and could not say whether it was genuine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signs distinguished visitors’ book in an assembly and test facility at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Region, Russia April 12, 2022
With little hope of a quick end to fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged Moscow would proceed on its own timetable, rebuffing repeated international calls for a ceasefire.
‘Our task is to fulfil and achieve all the goals set, minimising losses. And we will act rhythmically, calmly, according to the plan originally proposed by the General Staff,’ Putin told a news conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
He also dismissed as ‘fake’ claims that hundreds of civilians were killed in Bucha under Russian occupation.
Bucha Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said more than 400 people had been found dead after Moscow’s forces withdrew, and 25 women reported being raped, as the town prepares for the return of residents who fled the fighting.
‘What people will find in their homes is shocking, and they will remember the Russian occupiers for a very long time,’ he said.