KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine has braced for a decisive battle for control of the embattled country’s industrial east after Russian forces pulled back from the shattered outskirts of Kyiv to regroup and step up their offensive in the Donbass region, where authorities have urged people to evacuate before the hour runs out.
The mayor of the southern port city of Mariupol said on Wednesday that more than 5,000 civilians had been killed there. Meanwhile, in areas north of the capital, Ukrainian officials have gathered evidence of Russian atrocities amid signs Moscow troops killed people indiscriminately before withdrawing in recent days.
In his overnight address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that the Russian military is building up forces for a new offensive in the east, where the Kremlin has said its aim is to ‘liberate’ Donbass, Ukraine’s majority industrial heartland. Russian-speaking. Ukraine, too, was preparing for battle, he said.
“We will fight and we will not back down,” he said. “We will seek all possible options to defend ourselves until Russia begins to seriously seek peace. It is our land. It is our future. And we won’t let them down.
Ukrainian authorities have urged residents of Donbass to evacuate immediately.
“Later, people will be under fire,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, “and there is nothing we can do to help them.”
A US defense official speaking on condition of anonymity said Russia had completed withdrawing all of its roughly 24,000 or more troops from the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions in the north, sending them to Belarus or Russia to resupply and reorganize, probably to return to fight in the east.
But a Western official, also speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence estimates, said it would take battle-damaged Russian forces up to a month to regroup for a major push on the eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the United States and its Western allies moved to impose new sanctions on the Kremlin for killings it called war crimes.
Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said of more than 5,000 civilians killed during weeks of Russian shelling and street fighting, 210 were children. Russian forces bombed hospitals, including one where 50 people were burned to death, he said.
Boichenko said more than 90% of the city’s infrastructure had been destroyed. Attacks on the strategic Sea town of Azov have cut off food, water, fuel and medicine and pulverized homes and businesses.
British defense officials said 160,000 people remained stuck in the town, which had a population of 430,000 before the war. A humanitarian aid convoy accompanied by the Red Cross has been trying for days without success to enter the town.
Capturing Mariupol would allow Russia to secure a continuous land corridor to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
In the north, Ukrainian authorities said the bodies of at least 410 civilians had been found in towns around kyiv, victims of what Zelenskyy described as a Russian campaign of murder, rape, dismemberment and torture. Some victims were reportedly shot at close range. Some were found with their hands tied.
In his address on Wednesday evening, Zelenskyy accused Russia of interfering with an international investigation into possible war crimes by removing corpses and trying to hide other evidence in Bucha, northwest of kyiv.
“We have information that Russian troops have changed tactics and are trying to remove the dead, the dead Ukrainians, from the streets and cellars of the territory they occupied,” he said. “It’s just an attempt to hide the evidence and nothing more.”
Switching from Ukrainian to Russian, Zelenskyy urged ordinary Russians “to somehow confront the Russian repressive machine” instead of being “assimilated to Nazis for the rest of their lives.”
He called on the Russians to demand an end to the war, “if you are even a little ashamed of what the Russian army is doing in Ukraine”.
In response to alleged atrocities outside kyiv, the United States announced sanctions against Putin’s two adult daughters and said it was toughening sanctions against Russian banks. Britain has banned investment in Russia and pledged to end its dependence on Russian coal and oil by the end of the year.
The US Senate is expected to pass legislation on Thursday to end normal trade relations with Russia and codify President Joe Biden’s executive action banning imports of Russian oil. The trade suspension would allow Biden to pass higher tariffs on some Russian imports.
The European Union should also take additional punitive measures, including a coal embargo.
The Kremlin insisted its troops had committed no war crimes and alleged the footage of Bucha was staged by the Ukrainians.
Other bodies were yet to be recovered from Bucha. The Associated Press saw two in a house in a quiet neighborhood. Every now and then there was the dull rumble of workers clearing the town of mines and other unexploded ordnance.
Workers at a cemetery began loading more than 60 bodies onto a grocery shipping truck to transport them to a facility for further investigation.
Police said they found at least 20 bodies in the Makariv region west of Kyiv. In the village of Andriivka, residents said the Russians arrived in early March and took residents’ phones. Some people were detained and then released. Others met unknown fates. Some described sheltering for weeks in cellars normally used to store vegetables.
“At first we were scared, now we are hysterical,” said 64-year-old Valentyna Klymenko. She said she, her husband and two neighbors withstood the siege by sleeping on piles of potatoes covered with a mattress and blankets. “We didn’t cry at first. Now we cry.
North of the village, in the town of Borodyanka, rescuers searched the rubble of buildings for bodies.
Thwarted in their efforts to quickly take the capital, an increasing number of Putin’s troops, as well as mercenaries, are said to have entered the Donbass.
Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian-backed separatists in Donbass since 2014. Prior to its February 24 invasion, Moscow recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk regions as independent states.
The United States and the United Kingdom on Wednesday boycotted an informal meeting of the UN Security Council called by Russia to press its baseless claims that the United States has biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine. The meeting was the latest of several moves by Russia that have led Western countries to accuse Moscow of using the UN as a disinformation platform to distract from the war.
Russia’s claims have already been refuted. Ukraine owns and operates a network of biological laboratories that have received funding and research support from the United States and are no secret. The labs are part of a program that aims to reduce the likelihood of deadly epidemics, whether natural or manufactured.
American efforts date back to the 1990s to dismantle the former Soviet Union’s weapons of mass destruction program.
Oleksandr Stashevskyi and Cara Anna in Bucha, Ukraine, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine