The mayor of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol said Monday that more than 10,000 civilians have died in the Russian siege of his city, and that the death toll could surpass 20,000, as weeks of attacks and privation leave the bodies of Mariupol’s people “carpeted through the streets.”
Speaking by phone Monday with The Associated Press, Mayor Vadym Boychenko also accused Russian forces of having blocked weeks of thwarted humanitarian convoys into the city 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. Boychenko gave new details of recent allegations by Ukrainian officials that Russian forces have brought mobile cremation equipment to Mariupol to dispose of the corpses of victims of the siege.
Russian forces have taken many bodies to a huge shopping center where there are storage facilities and refrigerators, Boychenko said.
“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.
Boychenko spoke from a location in Ukrainian-controlled territory but outside Mariupol. The mayor said he had several sources for his description of the allegedly methodic burning of corpses by Russian forces in the city, but did not detail the sources of his information.
The discovery of large numbers of apparently executed civilians after Russian forces retreated from cities around the capital, Kyiv, this month already has prompted widespread condemnation and charges from Ukrainians and the West that Russia is committing war crimes in Ukraine.
Elsewhere Monday, U.S. officials pointed to new signs that Russia’s military is gearing up for a major offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, switching its focus after Russian forces failed in their initial drive to capture Kyiv.
Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region since 2014, and have declared independent states. A major confrontation between the two countries’ fighters in Donbas would allow Russia to try to use its numbers and greater military might to capture more territory there. Western military strategists say Russia also hopes to force Ukrainian fighters out into the open in more conventional battles in the east, rather than the successful hit-and-run attacks Ukrainian fighters have often employed so far.
Russia has appointed a seasoned general to lead its renewed push in the eastern Donbas region.
A senior U.S. defense official on Monday described a long Russian convoy now rolling toward the eastern city of Izyum with artillery, aviation and infantry support, as part of redeployment for what appears to be a looming Russian campaign in the east.
More artillery is being deployed near the city of Donetsk, while ground combat units that withdrew from around the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas appear destined for refitting and resupplying before they position in Donbas, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments.
With their offensive in many parts of the country thwarted, Russian forces have relied increasingly on bombarding cities — a strategy that has flattened many urban areas and killed thousands of people.
Ukrainian authorities accuse Russian forces of committing atrocities, including a massacre in the town of Bucha, outside Kyiv, airstrikes on hospitals and a missile attack that killed at least 57 people last week at a train station.
In Bucha on Monday, the work of exhuming bodies from a mass grave in a churchyard resumed.
Galyna Feoktistova waited for hours in the cold and rain in hopes of identifying her 50-year-old son, who was shot and killed more than a month ago, but eventually she went home for some warmth. “He’s still there,” her surviving son, Andriy, said.
In Mariupol, 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, Boychenko said.
Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are confiscating passports from Ukrainian citizens then moving them to “filtration camps” in Ukraine’s separatist-controlled east before sending them to distant, economically depressed areas in Russia.
Boychenko said Monday that improvised prisons were organized for those who did not pass the “filtering,” while at least 33,000 people were taken to Russia or to separatist territory in Ukraine.