Russians pound Ukrainian cities, as Biden rallies anti-Kremlin alliance

KYIV, Ukraine — Strikes on cities across Ukraine left a patchwork of death and destruction on Monday, including one that blew up a once-bustling shopping mall in Kyiv into smoldering ruin with one of the most powerful forces to have hit the city since Russia’s war against Ukraine began.

In the beleaguered and ravaged southern port of Mariupol, residents braced for fresh attacks after the Ukrainian government rejected a Russian ultimatum to return the city.

“A neighbor said that God had left Mariupol. He was afraid of everything he saw,” said Nadezhda Sukhorukova, a resident who recently escaped, adding, “my city is dying a painful death.”

The violence has formed the backdrop to further consultations between the United States and its allies on how to increase pressure on Russia, with President Biden speaking by phone with German, Italian, French and British leaders before to travel to Brussels on Wednesday to meet NATO leaders. The alliance could agree to Poland’s proposal to create an international peacekeeping force for Ukraine, an idea that US officials have cast doubt on.

In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador John J. Sullivan on Monday to warn that recent statements by Mr Biden – last week he called on President Vladimir V. Putin, a “murderous dictator” and a “pure thug” – had brought “Russian-American relations to the brink of rupture”. And in Washington, Mr. Biden urged the private sector to strengthen digital defenses, in light of reports that Russia could launch cyberattacks.

The burning of the sprawling shopping mall in the capital, Kyiv, was the most dramatic example on Monday of Russian forces aiming artillery, rockets and bombs at civilian and military targets, after failing to quickly take control of major Ukrainian cities following the 24th invasion.

The British Defense Intelligence Agency said on Monday that the bulk of Russian forces were more than 24 km from the center of kyiv and that capturing the capital remained “Russia’s primary military objective”.

As the Ukrainians managed to repel Russian forces in some places, thwarting this objective, Russia resorted to long-range missiles and other weapons to bombard towns and villages, creating a growing toll of physical devastation. and civilian casualties.

The Ukrainian government has also accused the Russians of targeting civilians in other ways, including hijacking a desperately needed aid convoy near Kharkiv and forcibly transferring thousands of children to Russia.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said the children were transferred from the eastern region of Donbass, where the two sides have been fighting for control of two breakaway areas since 2014. Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko, said in a press release that 2,389 children were taken from their parents in a single day, March 19. The claim could not be independently confirmed.

In Kharkiv, among the victims of the Russian bombings was Boris Romantschenko, 96, who had survived the Nazi concentration camps of Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Mittelbau-Dora. He died on Friday when a projectile hit his building, the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorial Foundation announced on Monday.

In the southern city of Kherson, Russian forces who have held the city since March 2 responded with violence on Monday to protesters in the main square who shouted at them to leave, according to videos and photographs verified by The New York Times. Troops’ previous response to regular protests had been sporadic gunfire in the air, but this escalated to sustained gunfire for nearly a minute, firing directly into the crowd – which dispersed – and the use of flash-bang grenades.

In Kyiv, city officials said at least eight people were killed after a Russian missile hit the shopping mall called Retroville in the northern part of the city around midnight. The balance sheet was to increase. The explosion was so powerful that it threw debris hundreds of meters in all directions, rocked buildings and leveled part of the mall, a sporting goods store called Sport City.

About eight hours after the strike, firefighters were still battling pockets of flames as soldiers and emergency crews searched through the rubble. Six plastic-covered bodies lay on the sidewalk next to one of the mall’s sliding glass entrance doors.

Closer to the crater left by the explosion, the damage was too extensive to recognize far beyond the mangled metal, concrete and burning car engines blown out by wrecked vehicles. One firefighter told another that deeper in the debris he had found “a hand, a leg and other pieces”.

The Retroville Mall housed a multiplex cinema, a fitness club, and fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and KFC, as well as an H&M store, although it had been closed since the start of the war. An office building nearby was still standing, but all of its windows had been smashed and it had burst into flames.

A soldier at the scene said a unit of Territorial Defense Force volunteers were confined to the mall and some died with security guards.

While Kyiv has been shelled for weeks, the scale of the devastation around the mall was greater than anything the Times witnessed inside the city limits.

Roksana Tsarenko, 27, an accountant, stood at the edge of the debris field, surveying the chaos. She last walked into the mall a month ago to watch “Marry Me,” starring Jennifer Lopez. “You live an ordinary life, and then all of a sudden life isn’t normal anymore,” she said.

Today, the whole of kyiv is involved in the defense of the capital, a once flourishing metropolis turned into a fortress.

Elsewhere in the city, Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker imprisoned for years in Russia over his opposition to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, said he evacuated his family and then joined the Territorial Defence, already fighting on the outskirts of kyiv.

“The Ukrainian people have been reborn,” said Sentsov, dressed in camouflage fatigues.

“Of course the war is terrible,” he added, “and a lot of people are dying, but there is a feeling that our nation is being born and our ties with Russia are severed.”

Russia had set a dawn deadline on Monday for the surrender of Ukrainian soldiers defending the strategic southern port of Mariupol, the main city between the eastern parts of Ukraine controlled by Moscow and the Crimean peninsula that Russia occupied in 2014.

The city was cut off from water, electricity and communications, and heavy fighting made any escape nearly impossible. The city is less than 40 miles from the Russian border, and any effort to create an unbroken land bridge stretching from Russia to Crimea would depend on controlling Mariupol.

A Ukrainian official has accused Russian forces of shooting at buses evacuating women and children from the city. Four children were injured, one of them seriously, Zaporizhzhia regional administration head Oleksandr Staruch said on Monday.

Russia has repeatedly denied hitting civilian targets, even in the face of mounting evidence of razed homes, offices and other structures. An airstrike last week destroyed a theater in Mariupol and another on Sunday hit a school in the city; each had been used to house hundreds of civilians.

In a rare first-hand account, Ms Sukhorukova, a Mariupol resident who managed to escape, described what she called a living “hell” with terrifying attacks at night – the almost constant roar of planes and sounds of explosions above her head as she sat in the darkness underground. .

“The dead lie in the entrances, on the balconies, in the courtyards. And you are not scared at all,” Ms Sukhorukova wrote on Facebook in a series of posts after her escape late last week. “Because the greatest fear is the night bombardments. Do you know what night bombing looks like? Like death.

There have been few first-person accounts of what the estimated 300,000 people trapped in the city endured. The only international journalists who remained were a team from the Associated Press, but they said on Monday they were forced to flee after learning Russian troops were looking for them.

The explosions sounded like “a huge hammer knocks on the iron roof, then a terrible rattle, as if the ground is cut with a huge knife, or a huge iron giant walks in forged boots on your land and steps on houses , trees, people,” Ms. Sukhorukova said.

Venturing into the streets in search of water, her hair matted after days without a bath, she said she dreamed of two things: “not getting shot and taking a hot shower before she died”.

It is unclear how Poland’s plan for a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine might work, given repeated statements by US and NATO officials that they would not send troops to defend Ukraine. . In the past, these missions were only deployed after the fighting had ended.

On Thursday, Mr Biden will take part in a summit meeting of the European Council and a G7 meeting called by Germany to discuss new sanctions against Mr Putin, as well as aid for the more than three million people who have fled Ukraine.

On Friday, he will travel to Poland, a NATO member that borders Ukraine and Russia and the country that is the main destination for refugees. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said there were no plans for Mr Biden to travel to Ukraine.

Andrew E. Kramer reported from kyiv and Neil MacFarquhar from New York. The report was provided by Megan Specia in Krakow, Poland, Carlotta Gall in kyiv, Marc Santora in Lviv, Thrush Glenn and John Ismay in Washington, Anton Troyanovsky in Istanbul, Ivan Nechepurenko, Dmitri Khavin, Haley Willis and Ainara Tiefenthaler.

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