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Western officials fear Russia could use chemical weapons

Russian strike devastates hospital in Mariupol; Zelensky: Kids buried under wreckage

At least 17 people confirmed wounded; British PM accuses Putin of ‘targeting the vulnerable and defenseless,’ says Russian leader will account for his crimes

  • A pregnant woman walks downstairs at the Russia-bombarded maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    A pregnant woman walks downstairs at the Russia-bombarded maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
  • A man carries his child away from the Russian-bombarded maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    A man carries his child away from the Russian-bombarded maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
  • A medical worker walks inside a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. A Russian attack severely damaged the hospital in the besieged port city, Ukrainian officials say. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    A medical worker walks inside a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. A Russian attack severely damaged the hospital in the besieged port city, Ukrainian officials say. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
  • A woman walks outside the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    A woman walks outside the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
  • A car burns at the side of the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    A car burns at the side of the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
  • Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
  • A volunteer works inside of the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
    A volunteer works inside of the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A Russian airstrike devastated a maternity hospital Wednesday in the besieged port city of Mariupol and wounded at least 17 people, Ukrainian officials said, amid growing warnings from the West that Moscow’s invasion is about to take a more brutal and indiscriminate turn.

The ground shook more than a mile away when a series of blasts slammed into the Mariupol complex, blowing out windows and ripping away much of the front of one building. Police and soldiers rushed to the scene to evacuate victims, carrying out a heavily pregnant and bleeding woman on a stretcher.

Another woman wailed as she clutched her child. In the courtyard, mangled cars burned, and a blast crater went at least two stories deep.

President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on Twitter that there were “people, children under the wreckage” and called the strike an “atrocity.” Video shared by Zelensky showed cheerfully painted hallways strewn with twisted metal.

“There are few things more depraved than targeting the vulnerable and defenseless,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be held “to account for his terrible crimes.”

The White House slammed what it called “barbaric” use of force against civilians, while UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the attack as “depraved”.

A UN spokesman said no health facility “should ever be a target.”

An injured pregnant woman walks downstairs in the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed Ukrainian “nationalist battalions” were using the hospital to set up firing positions after moving out staff and patients.

In the wake of the hospital bombing, a senior US defense official said there are signs that Russia is using so-called dumb bombs, unguided weapons that have a much higher chance of missing their target, Reuters reported.

“We do have indications that the Russians are in fact dropping some dumb munitions,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters, and noted the US had seen “increasing damage to civilian infrastructure and casualties.”

The official did not give the scale of use dumb munitions and could not specify if the Mariupol hospital was hit by such an unguided weapon.

Use of unguided weapons in urban environments would add to accusations that Russia is disregarding civilian casualties as it carries out what it calls “a special operation” in Ukraine, according to the report.

A woman walks outside the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

The official assessed that though Russia has lost several hundred military vehicles since the start of its campaign it maintains over 90 percent of the power it amassed on Ukraine’s borders before the invasion. Over 150,000 troops were assembled ahead of the attack.

US officials have estimated Russian troop losses at between 2,000 to 4,000 while Ukrainian officials have claimed to have killed three times that amount.

A car burns at the side of the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Evacuation ceasefires

Authorities, meanwhile, announced new ceasefires Wednesday morning to allow thousands of civilians to escape from bombarded towns around Kyiv as well as the southern cities of Mariupol, Enerhodar and Volnovakha, Izyum in the east and Sumy in the northeast.

It was not immediately clear whether anyone was able to leave other cities, but people streamed out of Kyiv’s suburbs, many headed for the city center, as explosions were heard in the capital and air raid sirens sounded repeatedly.

From there, the evacuees planned to board trains bound for western Ukrainian regions not under attack.

Civilians leaving the Kyiv suburb of Irpin were forced to make their way across the slippery wooden planks of a makeshift bridge because the Ukrainians blew up the concrete span to Kyiv days ago to slow the Russian advance.

With sporadic gunfire echoing behind them, firefighters dragged an elderly man to safety in a wheelbarrow, a child gripped the hand of a helping soldier, and a woman inched her way along cradling a fluffy cat inside her winter coat. They trudged past a crashed van with the words “Our Ukraine” written in the dust coating its windows.

“We have a short window of time at the moment,’’ said Yevhen Nyshchuk, a member of Ukraine’s territorial defense forces. “Even if there is a ceasefire right now, there is a high risk of shells falling at any moment.”

Previous attempts to establish safe evacuation corridors over the past few days largely failed because of what the Ukrainians said were Russian attacks. But Putin, in a telephone call with Germany’s chancellor, accused militant Ukrainian nationalists of hampering the evacuations.

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from the shelledng maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

In Mariupol, local authorities hurried to bury the dead from the past two weeks of fighting in a mass grave. City workers dug a trench some 25 meters (yards) long at one of the city’s old cemeteries and made the sign of the cross as they pushed bodies wrapped in carpets or bags over the edge.

Nationwide, thousands are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, in the two weeks of fighting since Putin’s forces invaded. The UN estimates more than 2 million people have fled the country, the biggest exodus of refugees in Europe since the end of World War II.

The fighting knocked out power to the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant, raising fears about the spent fuel that is stored at the site and must be kept cool. But the UN nuclear watchdog agency said it saw “no critical impact on safety” from the loss of power.

The crisis is likely to get worse as Moscow’s forces step up their bombardment of cities in response to what appear to be stronger Ukrainian resistance and heavier Russian losses than anticipated.

Echoing remarks from the director of the CIA a day earlier, British Defense Secretary said Russia’s assault will get “more brutal and more indiscriminate” as Putin tries to regain momentum.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said fighting continued northwest of Kyiv. The cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol were being heavily shelled and remained encircled by Russian forces.

Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, center, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Russian forces are placing military equipment on farms and amid residential buildings in the northern city of Chernihiv, Ukraine’s military said. In the south, Russians in civilian clothes are advancing on the city of Mykolaiv, a Black Sea shipbuilding center of a half-million people, it said.

The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, is building up defenses in cities in the north, south and east, and forces around Kyiv are “holding the line” against the Russian offensive, authorities said.

Military situation as of March 9, 2022 (Viewsridge / Wikipedia

In Irpin, a town of 60,000, police officers and soldiers helped elderly residents from their homes. One man was hoisted out of a damaged structure on a makeshift stretcher, while another was pushed toward Kyiv in a shopping cart. Fleeing residents said they had been without power and water for the past four days.

Regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said the crisis for civilians is deepening in and around Kyiv, with the situation particularly dire in the suburbs.

A Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces member holds an NLAW anti-tank weapon, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

“Russia is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kyiv region, frustrating the evacuation of people and continuing shelling and bombing small communities,” he said.

The situation is even worse in Mariupol, a strategic city of 430,000 people on the Sea of Azov that has been encircled by Russian forces for the past week.

Efforts to evacuate residents and deliver badly needed food, water and medicine failed Tuesday because of what the Ukrainians said were continued Russian attacks.

The city took advantage of a lull in the shelling Wednesday to hurriedly bury 70 people. Some were soldiers, but most were civilians.

The work was conducted efficiently and without ceremony. No mourners were present, no families to say their goodbyes.

One woman stood at the gates of the cemetery to ask whether her mother was among those being buried. She was.

Unconventional escalation

With the Russian invasion meeting determined resistance from Ukrainian fighters, Western officials are concerned that the war could escalate further and see Russia possibly use non-conventional weapons, the BBC reported Wednesday.

That would most likely be chemical weapons, rather than biological or small tactical nuclear weapons, or even so-called dirty bombs that scatter radioactive material.

“We’ve got good reason to be concerned,” one Western official said, speaking anonymously.

The official noted the use of non-conventional weapons in other conflicts involving Russia such as the Syrian civil war, where Russian forces helped the Damascus regime which is accused of using chemical weapons against its own people as it battled an insurgency.

The Western official noted that disinformation from Russia is possibly “setting the scene” for a “false flag” claim that the Ukrainians have used non-conventional weapons or were planning to, in order to justify Russian use.

There were “other indications as well,” the official said without going into details of what was likely intelligence information, the BBC reported.

Russian media has made unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine is attempting to develop a “dirty bomb” — a crude nuclear weapon capable of causing mass casualties.

On Wednesday the Russian embassy in the UK tweeted a claim made by Moscow’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman that “recently found documents show that components of biological weapons were made in Ukraine’s laboratories, with funding from US.”

Russia has justified its February 24 invasion in part by claiming, without evidence, there was a “genocide” going on in eastern Ukraine.

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