Zelenskiy warns of ‘new stage of terror’ as West investigates chemical weapons claims

Allegations of mobile crematoriums, rape and sexual violence by Russian forces

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has voiced concerns that Russian forces are preparing "a new stage of terror" that could involve the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine, as the mayor of Mariupol said that more than 10,000 civilians had died so far in the Russian siege of his city.

“Today, the occupiers issued a new statement, which testifies to their preparation for a new stage of terror against Ukraine and our defenders,” Mr Zelesnkiy said early on Tuesday. “One of the mouthpieces of the occupiers stated that they could use chemical weapons against the defenders of Mariupol. We take this as seriously as possible.”

Andriy Biletsky, the leader of the Azov volunteer regiment, claimed on Monday that three people in the southern port city had experienced “poisoning by warfare chemicals, but without catastrophic consequences”. However, Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to the Mariupol’s mayor, wrote that a chemical attack had not been confirmed and officials were “waiting for official information from the military”.

UK foreign secretary Liz Truss said work was under way to verify the claim, adding: “Any use of such weapons would be a callous escalation in this conflict and we will hold [Vladimir] Putin and his regime to account.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he was aware of the reports but could not confirm them. “These reports, if true, are deeply concerning and reflective of concerns that we have had about Russia’s potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including teargas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine,” he said.

Western officials have previously expressed concerns that Russia, finding its February 24th invasion of its neighbour grinding into a protracted conflict, could resort to more extreme measures, including chemical weapons.

Russian troops have been besieging the city on the Sea of Azov since the beginning of March. The territory controlled by Ukrainian forces has gradually shrunk to a few central areas. The surviving marines are now holed up in the Azovstal iron and steelworks next to the port.

The last Ukrainian soldiers defending Mariupol said they were “running out of ammunition” on Monday and expected to be killed or taken prisoner very soon by Russian forces surrounding the city.

Vadym Boychenko, Mariupol’s mayor, told the Associated Press on Monday more than 10,000 civilians had died in his city, and the toll could surpass 20,000, as weeks of attacks and privation leave the bodies of Mariupol’s people “carpeted through the streets”.

Mr Boychenko also accused Russian forces of having blocked humanitarian convoys into the city for weeks in an attempt to conceal the carnage there from the outside world.

Mariupol has been cut off by Russian attacks that began soon after Russian president Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine in late February, and has suffered some of the most brutal assaults of the war.

Mobile cremations

Mr Boychenko gave new details of recent allegations by Ukrainian officials that Russian forces had brought mobile cremation equipment to dispose of the corpses of victims of the siege. “Mobile crematoriums have arrived in the form of trucks: You open it, and there is a pipe inside and these bodies are burned,” he said.

Russian forces have taken many bodies to a huge shopping centre where there are storage facilities and refrigerators, he said.

About 120,000 civilians are in dire need of food, water, warmth and communications, the mayor said. Only those residents who have passed the Russian “filtration camps” are released from the city, Mr Boychenko said.

Improvised prisons were organised for those who did not pass the “filtering”, while at least 33,000 people were taken to Russia or to separatist territory in Ukraine, he claimed.

A Russia-allied separatist official, Eduard Basurin, appeared to the use of chemical weapons on Monday, telling Russian state television that Russian-backed forces should seize a giant metals plant in Mariupol by first blocking all the exits out of the factory. “And then we’ll use chemical troops to smoke them out of there,” he said.

Ukrainian law-maker Ivanna Klympush said Russia had used an “unknown substance” in Mariupol and that people were suffering from respiratory failure, but did not know if chemical weapons had been used.

Women and children

Nearly two-thirds of all Ukrainian children – 4.8 million – have fled their homes since the start of Russia’s invasion, the UN children’s agency said on Monday. The UN has verified the deaths of 142 youngsters, though the number is almost certainly much higher, the agency said.

It comes as the UN has increasingly heard accounts of rape and sexual violence in Ukraine and called for an investigation into violence against women and increased protection for Ukrainian children. Sima Bahous, UN Women executive director, told the UN security council: "The combination of mass displacement with the large pressure results of conscripts and mercenaries and the brutality displayed against Ukrainian civilians has raised all red flags."

Ukraine’s ombudswoman for human rights said she had recorded horrific acts of sexual violence by Russian troops in Bucha and elsewhere, including a case in which women and girls were kept in a basement for 25 days, the New York Times reported. Nine of those victims are now pregnant, according to the ombudswoman, Lyudmyla Denisova.

In other developments:

  • US officials pointed to new signs that Russia's military is gearing up for a major offensive in Ukraine's eastern Donbas, switching its focus after failing in their initial drive to capture Kyiv. A senior US defence official described a long convoy now rolling toward the eastern city of Izyum with artillery, aviation and infantry support, as part of redeployment to the east.
  • Ukrainian authorities are warning people not to go near what they say are landmines being dropped on Kharkiv. Mr Zelenskiy also spoke of "hundreds of thousands of dangerous objects" including mines and unexploded shells left by Russian forces in regions in Ukraine's north.
  • Mr Putin will meet Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Ukraine and Western sanctions, news agencies in Russia and Belarus reported.
  • Austria's chancellor, Karl Nehammer, has said he told Mr Putin during frosty talks that "all those responsible" for war crimes must be brought to justice and warned that western sanctions would intensify as long as people kept dying in Ukraine.
  • Sweden's ruling party has begun debating whether the country should join Nato, and neighbouring Finland expects to reach a decision within weeks, as Moscow warned that the Nordic nations' accession would "not bring stability" to Europe. – Guardian and other agencies