Forced civilian deportations from Mariupol to Russia are "disturbing" and "unconscionable" if true, the US has said, after Ukrainian officials accused Moscow of transporting thousands of people against their will out of the devastated port city.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, America's ambassador to the UN, said the US had not yet confirmed the allegations, made on Saturday by Mariupol city council and repeated in detail on Sunday by Ukraine's human rights spokeswoman Lyudmyla Denisova.
“I’ve only heard it. I can’t confirm it,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield told CNN. “But I can say it is disturbing. It is unconscionable for Russia to force Ukrainian citizens into Russia and put them in what will basically be concentration and prisoner camps.”
As the UN said 10 million people – about a quarter of Ukraine’s prewar population –had been displaced by the conflict and Ukrainian authorities accused Moscow of bombing an art school in Mariupol where more than 400 people had taken shelter, Ms Denisova said Russian troops had “kidnapped” residents and taken them to Russia.
“Several thousand Mariupol residents have been deported to Russia,” she said on Telegram. After processing at “filtration camps”, some had been transported to the Russian city of Taganrog, about 100km from Mariupol, and from there sent by rail “to various economically depressed cities in Russia”, she said.
Ms Denisova said Ukrainian citizens had been “issued papers that require them to be in a certain city. They have no right to leave it for at least two years with the obligation to work at the specified place of work. The fate of others remains unknown.”
Russian news agencies have reported that hundreds of people whom Moscow are calling refugees have been taken by bus from Mariupol to Russia. Ms Denisova said the “abductions and forced displacements” violated the Geneva and European human rights conventions and called on the international community to “respond . . . and increase sanctions against the terrorist state of the Russian Federation”.
Resident Anna Iwashyna (39), who recently fled Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia, said: "I don't know if people are being taken to Russia by force, but I can say for sure nobody is going there willingly."
Ms Iwashyna said conditions in the city were atrocious. “The entire infrastructure has been destroyed,” she told the Guardian. “There are no shops, no pharmacies, no medical aid, fires are all around the city, there are no firefighters. There’s nowhere to get food.”
Ms Iwashyna said she had seen “dead bodies on the street, with my own eyes. Right by the Maritime University. There was a missile, it was still stuck into an intersection, and there was a dead person on the sidewalk. I could hear planes all night long, they are bombing and bombing and bombing the city, non-stop.”
Days after Russian shells struck a theatre in the city that was also being used as a shelter, local authorities said Mariupol’s G12 art school had been destroyed while women, children and elderly people were inside. There was no immediate word on casualties at the site and no further update on the search for survivors at the theatre.
Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Sunday described Russia's siege of the city as "a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come". Bombarded since the start of the invasion, many of Mariupol's residents have been without heat, power or water for more than a fortnight. Local authorities have said at least 2,300 have died, some of whom had to be buried in mass graves.
Ms Denisova also accused Russian forces of the murder of 56 elderly people in the town of Kreminna in the Luhansk region after a Russian tank "cynically and purposefully fired at a home for the elderly". Fifteen survivors were "abducted by the occupiers", she said, calling the attack "another act of horrific genocide".
Mariupol authorities said on Sunday that nearly 40,000 residents had managed to leave the city in the previous week, mostly in their own vehicles, despite ongoing air and artillery strikes. Ukraine's deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said seven safe routes would again be open across the country on Sunday.
The head of the UN's refugee agency UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, said more than a quarter of Ukraine's pre-war population had fled their homes to escape the Russian onslaught. "Among the responsibilities of those who wage war, everywhere in the world, is the suffering inflicted on civilians who are forced to flee their homes," he tweeted.