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KYIV: Russia vowed to continue its bloody offensive in Ukraine as the war neared its seventh week on Wednesday, as President Vladimir Putin insisted the campaign was going according to plan despite a major withdrawal and heavy casualties .
Thwarted in their push towards the capital, kyiv, Russian troops focused on the eastern region of Donbass, where Ukraine said it was investigating an allegation that a toxic substance had been dropped on its troops. The nature of the substance was unclear, but Western officials warned that any use of chemical weapons by Russia would be a serious escalation of the already devastating war.
Russia invaded on February 24 with the aim, according to Western officials, of taking kyiv, overthrowing the government and installing a regime favorable to Moscow. Over the next six weeks, the ground advance stalled and Russian forces lost potentially thousands of fighters and were blamed for killing civilians and other atrocities.
Putin said on Tuesday that Moscow “had no other choice” and that the invasion was aimed at protecting people in parts of eastern Ukraine and “ensuring Russia’s own security”. He swore that he would “continue until its complete completion and the fulfillment of the tasks which have been set”.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was to receive the Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian presidents, his loyal European allies.
“We are visiting Ukraine to show strong support for the Ukrainian people, will meet our dear friend President Zelensky,” Estonian President Alar Karis tweeted.
For now, Putin’s forces are preparing for a major offensive in Donbass, where Russia-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since 2014, and where Russia has recognized the separatists’ demands for independence. Military strategists say Moscow believes local support, logistics and terrain in the region favor its larger and better-armed military, potentially allowing Russia to turn the tide in its favor.
In Mariupol, a strategic port city in Donbass, a Ukrainian regiment defending a steel mill alleged that a drone had dropped a toxic substance on the city. The claim of the Azov Regiment, a far-right group now part of the Ukrainian military, could not be independently verified. The regiment said there were no serious injuries.
Zelensky said while experts try to determine what the substance might be, “the world needs to respond now.”
The allegations came after a separatist official allied with Russia appeared to urge the use of chemical weapons, telling Russian state television on Monday that separatist forces should seize the plant by blockading first all exits. “And then we will use chemical troops to smoke them out,” said the official, Eduard Basurin. He denied on Tuesday that separatist forces used chemical weapons in Mariupol.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said officials were investigating and it was possible that phosphorus munitions – which cause horrific burns but are not classified as chemical weapons – were used in Mariupol , which has been pummeled by weeks of Russian assaults.
Western leaders have warned that if chemical weapons were found to have been used, it would be a serious violation of international law.
President Joe Biden for the first time called Russia’s invasion “genocide” and said “Putin is just trying to eliminate the very idea of ​​being Ukrainian.”
The Pentagon said it could not confirm the drone report, but reiterated US concerns about Russia’s use of chemical agents. Britain, meanwhile, has warned that Russia may use phosphorus bombs, which are banned from civilian areas under international law, in Mariupol.
Most armies use phosphorus ammunition to illuminate targets or produce smoke screens. Deliberately firing them in an enclosed space to expose people to the fumes could violate the Chemical Weapons Convention, said Marc-Michael Blum, former lab chief at the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“Once you start using the properties of white phosphorus, the toxic properties, specifically and deliberately, then it becomes prohibited,” he said.
In Washington, a senior US defense official said the Biden administration was preparing another military aid package for Ukraine to be announced in the coming days, up to $750 million. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss plans not yet publicly announced. The delivery is to be completed this week of $800 million in military assistance approved by Biden a month ago.
Faced with fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces reinforced by Western weapons, Russian forces increasingly relied on bombing cities, razing many urban areas and killing thousands. The war has driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes, including nearly two-thirds of the country’s children.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the humanitarian corridors used to get people out of towns attacked by Russia will not work on Wednesday due to the lack of security.
She said that in the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhia Russian troops were blocking evacuation buses, and in the Luhansk region they were violating the ceasefire. “The occupiers not only do not respect the standards of international humanitarian law, but they also cannot properly control their people on the ground. All of this creates such a level of danger on the roads that we are forced to refrain from opening humanitarian corridors today.
Moscow’s withdrawal from towns and villages around Kyiv led to the discovery of large numbers of apparently massacred civilians, prompting widespread condemnation and accusations of war crimes.
Zelensky said evidence of “inhuman cruelty” to women and children in Bucha and other Kyiv suburbs continued to surface, including alleged rapes.
“Not all serial rapists reach the cruelty of Russian soldiers,” Zelensky said.
More than 720 people have been killed in the outskirts of kyiv occupied by Russian troops and more than 200 are missing, the Interior Ministry announced on Wednesday.
In Bucha alone, Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said 403 bodies had been recovered and the toll could rise as minesweepers comb the area.
In the Chernihiv region, villagers said more than 300 people had been trapped for nearly a month by occupying Russian troops in the basement of a school and were only allowed out to going to the toilet or cooking over open fires.
Valentyna Saroyan told The Associated Press that she saw at least five people die in Yahidne, 140 kilometers (86 miles) north of kyiv. In one of the rooms, residents wrote the names of those who perished during the ordeal – the list numbered 18 people.
Villagers say they don’t know the cause of death. The Russian soldiers allowed them to remove the bodies from time to time in order to bury them in a mass grave at the local cemetery.
Julia Surypak said Russians only allow some people to take a short trip home if they sing the Russian anthem. Another resident, Svitlana Baguta, said a Russian soldier made her drink from a canteen while pointing a gun at her face.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said on Tuesday it was also investigating events in the northeast Brovary district. He said the bodies of six civilians were found with gunshot wounds in a basement in the village of Shevchenkove and that Russian forces are believed to be responsible.
Prosecutors are also investigating allegations that Russian forces fired on a convoy of civilians trying to drive away from the village of Peremoha in Brovary district, killing four people including a 13-year-old boy. In another attack near Bucha, five people were killed, including two children, when a car came under fire, prosecutors said.
Putin falsely claimed on Tuesday that Ukraine’s accusation that hundreds of civilians were killed by Russian troops in the town of Bucha was “false”. Associated Press reporters saw dozens of bodies in and around the city, some of which had their hands tied and appeared to have been shot at close range.