Authorities in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol have said Russian troops have forcibly deported several thousand residents to Russia, as claims emerged that the besieged city had been “wiped off the face of the earth”.
“Over the past week, several thousand Mariupol residents were deported on to the Russian territory,” the city council said in a statement on its Telegram channel late on Saturday.
“The occupiers illegally took people from the Livoberezhniy district and from the shelter in the sports club building, where more than a thousand people (mostly women and children) were hiding from the constant bombing.”
The claims have not been independently verified, but the council’s statement is one of several reports about Mariupol residents being taken to Russia, where authorities have referred to “refugees” arriving from the strategic port.
In a Saturday night broadcast, the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said of the attacks on Mariupol: “To do this to a peaceful city… is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come.”
Intense street fighting in the city has hampered attempts to free hundreds of survivors trapped for days inside a bombed theater as Ukrainian forces held out against a larger Russian force inside the strategically important southern port city.
Jakob Kern, the World Food Program’s emergency coordinator, described Russia’s tactic of preventing emergency food supplies to Mariupol as “unacceptable in the 21st century”. Ukrainian MP Dmytro Gurin described conditions in the city as “medieval”.
Across Ukraine, evacuations from cities continued on Saturday along eight of 10 humanitarian corridors, said the deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk. A total of 6,623 people were evacuated, including 4,128 from Mariupol, the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering.
Meanwhile, China has responded angrily to mounting western pressure to condemn the invasion, saying it stands on the right side of history over the crisis and is in line with the stances of most countries.
“China will never accept any external coercion or pressure, and opposes any unfounded accusations and suspicious against China,” the foreign minister, Wang Yi, said on Saturday evening.
China has refused to condemn Russia’s action in Ukraine or call it an invasion, although it has expressed concern about the crisis. Beijing has also opposed economic sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, describing them as unilateral and not authorized by the UN security council.
Wang’s comments came after the US president, Joe Biden, warned his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on Friday of “consequences” if Beijing gave material support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We have always stood for maintaining peace and opposing war,” Wang said, reiterating that China will make independent judgments. “China’s position is objective and fair, and is in line with the wishes of most countries. Time will prove that China’s claims are on the right side of history.”
An official in Mariupol accused Russian forces of taking thousands of Ukrainians across the border into Russia, adding he feared they could be used as forced labour, the New York Times reported.
Pyotr Andryushchenko, an assistant to the city’s mayor, said Russian forces had taken “between 4,000 and 4,500 Mariupol residents forcibly across the border to Taganrog” – a city in south-western Russia – the newspaper said. The residents had been taken without their passports, Andryushchenko said.
A Ukrainian police officer in Mariupol warned that it had been “wiped off the face of the earth”, and pleaded with the US and France to supply the country with a modern air defense system.
In a video appeal from a street strewn with rubble, Michail Vershnin publicly reminded Biden and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, that they had promised assistance “but what we have received is not quite it”, and urged them to save the civilian population.
“Children, elderly people are dying. The city is destroyed and it has been wiped off the face of the earth,” Vershnin said, speaking in Russian in the video filmed on Friday that has been authenticated by the Associated Press.
He then appealed directly to the US and French leaders. “You have promised that there will be help, give us that help. Biden, Macron, you are great leaders. Be them to the end.”
Pressure on China to abandon its neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine increased after the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, urged leaders in Beijing to get off the fence and join global condemnation of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
“As time goes on and as the number of Russian atrocities mounts up, I think it becomes steadily more difficult and politically embarrassing for people either actively or passively to condone Putin’s invasion,” Johnson said.
“There are considerable dilemmas now for people who thought they could sit this one out, who thought they could sit on the fence. And, yes, I think that in Beijing you are starting to see some second thoughts.”
China, however, has shown no sign of altering its stance. On Saturday his vice foreign minister, Le Yucheng, described western sanctions against Russia as increasingly “outrageous”.
He also acknowledged Moscow’s position on Nato, saying the alliance should not further expand eastwards and force a nuclear power like Russia “into a corner”.
“The sanctions against Russia are getting more and more outrageous,” Le said at security forum in Beijing, adding that Russian citizens were being deprived of overseas assets “for no reason”.
“History has proven time and again that sanctions cannot solve problems. Sanctions will only harm ordinary people, impact the economic and financial system … and worsen the global economy.”
The fall of Mariupol, a key connection to the Black Sea, would mark a major advance for the Russians, who are largely bogged down outside major cities more than three weeks into the biggest land invasion in Europe since the second world war.
Russian media have offered a very different explanation for the reported removal of Mariupol residents. The Tass news agency reported on Saturday that 13 buses were moving to Russia, carrying more than 350 people, about 50 of whom were to be sent by rail to the Yaroslavl region and the rest to temporary transition centers in Taganrog, a port city in Russia’s Rostov region.
RIA Novosti agency, citing emergency services, reported last week that nearly 300,000 people, including some 60,000 children, had arrived in Russia from the Luhansk and Donbas regions, including from Mariupol, in recent weeks.
Russia’s defense ministry said this month that more than 2.6 million people in Ukraine have asked to be evacuated – a claim that has not been independently verified.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism