Columns of Russian tanks with flags flying from their turrets patrolled the ruins of Mariupol yesterday amid reports that 9,000 Ukrainians may have been murdered and buried in mass graves on the outskirts of the city.
The menacing T-72s bore the familiar white, blue and red Russian flag and the less well-known black, blue and red flag of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a region occupied by pro-Russian separatists.
The huge convoy sent an ominous message to the watching world as Russia tightened its grip on eastern Ukraine.
The immense Russian convoy rolled into war-torn Mariupol yesterday to tighten Putin’s grip
The first satellite image, taken on March 19, 2022, shows a cemetery on the outskirts of Mariupol. A large empty field can be seen nearby the graves on the right. But the second image, taken on April 3, clearly shows several rows of freshly-dug mass graves running along the length of the field by the cemetery. Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Mariupol after eight weeks of constant Russian bombardment
Some 100,000 civilians remain trapped in Mariupol after talks to open humanitarian corridors fell through – as it was reported that Russian forces bombed an escape route.
Yesterday, satellite images emerged of what appear to be mass graves near the city. Mariupol council claimed the graves could hold as many as 9,000 bodies.
If confirmed, the graves would be much bigger than those found in the town of Bucha. Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko accused the Russians of ‘hiding their military crimes’ by burying the people they murdered.
He said: ‘The greatest war crime of the 21st century has been committed in Mariupol. This is the new Babi Yar [a massacre of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis in 1941].
‘Then, Hitler killed Jews, Roma and Slavs. And now Vladimir Putin is destroying Ukrainians.
‘He has killed tens of thousands of civilians in Mariupol. This requires a strong reaction from the entire world. We need to stop the genocide by any means possible.’
According to Maxar Technologies, which released the images, the graves in the town of Manhush, outside Mariupol, were dug in late March, with more being dug in recent weeks.
The pictures were released as Putin boasted his troops have ‘liberated’ Mariupol. The Russian president appeared bloated in TV images as he slouched in a chair and gripped a table.
Putin’s health has reportedly been in decline since the invasion began in February.
His declaration of victory in Mariupol came despite the presence of 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers holding out in a huge steel plant in the city.
We’ve only got hours left, say heroes of steel plant
By Lewis Pennock
Sealed into a 15-mile labyrinth with no means of escape, they have just hours of food and water left.
There are 2,000 of them cramped inside the suffocating Cold War tunnels beneath the remains of Azovstal steelworks, and the soldiers and civilians who make up Mariupol’s last resistance now know one thing for certain – the fight is all but over.
Above them Mariupol is razed, with tens of thousands dead in the rubble.
Deputy commander Svyatoslav Palamar said: ‘Russian promises are worth nothing’
The Russians are finally in control, the red, white and blue tricolour flying from tanks patrolling city streets which now barely exist.
‘We’re at the end of our food and water,’ Staff Sergeant Leonid Kuznetsov, 25, of the Ukrainian National Guard said.
‘We have about 1,000 civilians at the factory. I can’t say how many soldiers we have.
‘There are many, many wounded and not enough medicine. There are not even simple bandages.’
The only hope? Guarantees of a safe passage out for the elderly, women and children. But for the soldiers, surrender is out of the question.
The soldiers inside the tunnels and bunkers beneath the steelworks are the only Ukrainian resistance left in Mariupol.
This ‘city under a city’ was built during the Cold War as a hiding place for the plant’s 40,000 workers in the event of a nuclear attack.
Civilians are sheltering in concrete bunkers which each hold about 80 to 100 people, separate from the soldiers.
Russian soldiers stand guard in front of the Azovstal administration building on Thursday
Intense shelling above ground at the Azovstal site has caused some of the tunnels to collapse, with deadly consequences.
Some parts of the subterranean network are being used to store the bodies of the dead, in the hope that they can be given a proper burial.
‘We’re hoping for help. If we don’t get it, we won’t make it out. We will die here with weapons in our hands defending Ukraine,’ Sergeant Kuznetsov said.
‘We have a day or two if the fight isn’t that intense. If it is, it all may end within 12 hours.’
His wife, Maria Kuznetsova, 23, who is living with their one-year-old son in western Ukraine, added: ‘He hopes everything will turn out all right, but he told me to be prepared for any outcome.’
On Thursday, Vladimir Putin ordered a blockade of the site ‘so not even a fly can get through’.
Russia’s defence ministry said yesterday it was ready for a ceasefire to allow civilians out if the soldiers surrender.
Palamar’s comments are the first to come from inside the steelworks, the last remaining bastion of resistance in the city which has been razed to the ground
But a Ukrainian deputy commander inside the tunnels, Svyatoslav Palamar, said Russian promises are ‘worth nothing’.
He told the BBC: ‘I hope we all know who we are dealing with. We definitely know that all guarantees, all statements of the Russian Federation are worth nothing.’
Russia has not said how it will clear the tunnels if troops do not surrender.
There were fears a chemical attack could be launched, but Putin’s decision to blockade the site suggests starvation is the preferred approach.
Captain Palamar added: ‘All the buildings in the territory of Azovstal are practically destroyed. They drop heavy bombs, which cause huge destruction.’
Ukraine says about 100,000 people are still trapped in Mariupol.
Putin has claimed the capture of the city, where 21,000 people have reportedly been killed, has been ‘successfully completed’.
£46bn and counting… bill for devastation by Russian army
At least £46billion of damage has been inflicted on Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion, the World Bank said yesterday.
It came as Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky said his country will need £5.4billion a month until the summer to keep functioning.
He warned that Ukraine will eventually need ‘hundreds of billions of dollars’ to rebuild ruined cities and crucial infrastructure.
Zelensky: ‘Ukraine will need hundreds of billions of dollars to recover from this war’
Speaking at a World Bank summit, its president David Malpass revealed the shocking cost of damage suffered by Ukraine – which did not include the cost to its economy.
He announced the US-based World Bank Group – which makes loans to developing countries – had raised £2.3billion for Ukraine so its government could continue to function.
He added: ‘The war has been devastating for Ukraine’s people and its economy and it must end now.’
Addressing the summit via video-link, Mr Zelensky said: ‘Russian troops are deliberately destroying all facilities… that could provide an economic basis for life – railway stations, food warehouses, bakery plants, oil terminals.
‘Ukraine will need hundreds of billions of dollars to recover from this war.’