Fears are growing for hundreds of civilians holed up in the Azovstal steel factory on Mariupol’s left bank, with the last remaining, outgunned contingent of Ukrainian fighters.
According to local officials on Friday, between 300 and 1,000 people – including women and children – could still be trapped in the steelworks, a sprawling mass of tunnels and workshops spread over four square miles in the south-east of the city, scene of the worst humanitarian crisis of the nearly two-month war.
Speaking in Moscow on Thursday, Vladimir Putin, who claimed the city had fallen into Russian hands, apart from the Azovstal metalworks, ordered his forces not to storm the factory complex, after his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, admitted the Russian army was still fighting thousands of Ukrainian soldiers there.
The Russian president described a plan to penetrate the complex as impractical, and called instead for a blockade of the area “so that a fly can’t get through”. Putin told Shoigu, in remarks broadcast on state television: “There is no need to climb into these catacombs and crawl underground.”
However, due to the lack of telecommunication in the city, after the Russian troops bombed radio towers in Mariupol during the first days of invasion, concerns are rising over the fate of civilians and soldiers.
British intelligence suggests Putin’s decision to blockade the steel plant probably indicates a desire to contain Ukrainian resistance in the city and free up Russian forces to be deployed in eastern Ukraine.
The mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boichenko, appealed on Friday for the “full evacuation” of its devastated city, where, according to local officials, 100,000 people remain trapped.
“We don’t know the precise civilian figure because we haven’t been able to get them out. We need a day’s ceasefire for this to happen,” Boichenko, who is no longer in Mariupol, told the Guardian. ‘’The civilians were living in desperate conditions in a network of underground tunnels, surrounded by Russian troops.’’
Boichenko said Russia had been hiding evidence of its “barbaric” war crimes in Mariupol by burying the bodies of civilians killed by shelling in a new mass grave, as a US satellite imagery company released photos that appeared to match the site.
According to local officials, Russian trucks had collected corpses from the streets of the port city and transported them to the nearby village of Manhush. They were then secretly thrown into a mass grave in a field next to the settlement’s old cemetery, he said.
“The invaders are concealing evidence of their crimes’’, Boichenko said. “The cemetery is located near a petrol station to the left side of a circular road. The Russians have dug huge trenches, 30 metres wide. They chuck people in.”
“The bodies of the dead were being brought by truckload and actually simply being dumped in mounds,” an aide to Boichenko, Piotr Andryushchenko, said on the Telegram messaging app.
The graves could hold up to 9,000 bodies, the Mariupol city council said via Telegram.
The mayor estimated that more than 20,000 Mariupol residents had been killed since Russian forces began attacking the city during the early days of Putin’s invasion.
On Friday, the UN human rights office sounded the alarm about growing evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, urging Moscow and Kyiv to order combatants to respect international law.
“Russian armed forces have indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, actions that may amount to war crimes,” the office of UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, said.
UN human rights monitors in Ukraine have also documented what appeared to be the use of weapons with indiscriminate effects, causing civilian casualties, by Ukrainian armed forces in the east of the country, the OHCHR said.
It added that from the start of the war on 24 February until 20 April, monitors in Ukraine had verified 5,264 civilian casualties – 2,345 killed and 2,919 injured.
“We know the actual numbers are going to be much higher as the horrors inflicted in areas of intense fighting, such as Mariupol, come to light, Bachelet said.
“The scale of summary executions of civilians in areas previously occupied by Russian forces are also emerging. The preservation of evidence and decent treatment of mortal remains must be ensured, as well as psychological and other relief for victims and their relatives.”
During a mission to Bucha on 9 April, UN human rights officers documented the unlawful killing, including by summary execution, of about 50 civilians, it said.
On Thursday, the Guardian revealed the use by Russian troops of a number of weapons widely banned across the world, which have killed hundreds of civilians in Kyiv.
Evidence collected by the Guardian during a visit to Bucha, Hostomel and Borodianka, and reviewed by independent weapons experts, showed Russian troops had used cluster munitions, cluster bombs and extremely powerful unguided bombs in populated areas, which had destroyed at least eight civilian buildings.
Meanwhile, according to a top Russian general quoted by Russian news agencies, Moscow will try to seize eastern and southern Ukraine as its main objective in the war.
“Since the start of the second phase of the special operation … one of the tasks of the Russian army is to establish full control over the Donbas and southern Ukraine,” Maj Gen Rustam Minnekaev said.
He added that this would create a “land corridor” to annexed Crimea.
Control over the south of Ukraine is another way to Transnistria, where there is also evidence that the Russian-speaking population is being oppressed,” he said at a meeting in Russia’s central Sverdlovsk region, referring to a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova.
Minnekaev’s words follow heavy shelling in the eastern Donbas as Russia tried to advance towards settlements, the British Ministry of Defence said.
Russia’s defence ministry said it struck 58 military targets in Ukraine overnight, including sites where troops, fuel depots and military equipment were concentrated.
And as the Orthodox Christian Easter, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Russia had rejected a proposed Easter truce but he remained hopeful of prospects for peace.