Desperate battle to find survivors trapped in Mariupol maternity hospital: Rescuers comb rubble after ‘genocide’ bomb blast as temperatures plunge to -4C with fears any injured children will freeze to death

Rescuers on the scene at a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol are locked in a race against time as they try to free survivors from the rubble after the complex suffered a ‘direct hit’ by Russian rockets yesterday, in what President Zelensky described as an ‘atrocity’ and ‘the ultimate proof of genocide against Ukrainians.’ 

Footage has emerged of badly wounded patients and nurses being evacuated from decimated buildings, while pregnant women were carried out on stretchers into a courtyard covered in rubble and littered with huge craters.

At least 17 people, including women in labour, were injured in the attack, officials said.

An official death toll has not yet been established but rescuers are working desperately to find and free those still trapped under the rubble with temperatures in the besieged city set to plunge to minus 4 degrees C overnight.

Many of the pregnant women present at the hospital were hiding the the basement at the time of the strike on the orders of hospital authorities – a move indicative of the harsh bombardment suffered by Mariupol’s citizens over the past week, and one which likely saved their lives.

Zelensky himself posted a video showing the badly damaged hospital buildings, filmed inside a destroyed ward room with its windows blown out and ceiling partially collapsed. More footage showed a car park covered in rubble and the smouldering wrecks of vehicles as injured families staggered into the freezing air while snow fell. 

‘Direct strike of Russian troops at the maternity hospital. People, children are under the wreckage. Atrocity! How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror? Close the sky right now! Stop the killings! You have power but you seem to be losing humanity,’ the President tweeted.

He then took to Telegram, where he released a video statement from the presidential palace in Kyiv in which he said the hospital strike ‘is the ultimate proof that what is happening is the genocide of Ukrainians’.

‘Europeans, you can’t say you didn’t see what is happening. You have to tighten the sanctions until Russia can’t continue their savage war,’ he said.

‘What kind of country bombs hospitals? Is afraid of hospitals? Of a maternity ward? 

‘Was someone insulting Russians? Were pregnant women shooting in direction of Rostov? Was it the ”denazification” of a hospital? What the Russians did at Mariupol was beyond savagery.’

In a separate interview with Sky News, Zelensky added that Russian invaders want Ukrainians ‘to feel like animals’ by preventing them from accessing food or water, and implored NATO and the West to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

‘They want us to feel like animals because they blocked our cities… because they don’t want our people to get some food or water.

‘Don’t wait for me to ask you several times, a million times, to close the sky. You have to phone us, to our people who lost their children, and say ”sorry we didn’t do it yesterday.”  

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile condemned the strike as ‘depraved’ and vowed to step up support to the beleaguered Ukrainian military. 

‘There are few things more depraved than targeting the vulnerable and defenceless,’ the Prime Minister declared. 

‘The UK is exploring more support for Ukraine to defend against airstrikes and we will hold Putin to account for his terrible crimes,’ he added.  

Mr Johnson later on Wednesday committed to enacting the ‘maximum economic cost’ on Russia in wake of the bombing, while Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to say aggression like Vladimir Putin’s must ‘never again’ be allowed to ‘grow unchecked’ in her speech tomorrow in Washington.  

Ms Truss will make comparisons between the Russian president’s actions and the World Trade Centre terror attack in 2001, and will urge the international community to change its approach to dealing with antagonistic world leaders.

The White House press secretary Jen Psaki also commented: ‘As a mother – I know a number of you are mothers – it is horrifying to see the barbaric use of military force to go after innocent civilians in a sovereign country.’

Mariupol’s city council said the hospital had suffered ‘colossal’ damage but did not immediately give a figure of the wounded and dead. 

The deputy head of Mr Zelensky’s office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said authorities are trying to establish the number of victims.

Ukrainian MP Dmitry Gurin told the BBC: ‘There are a lot of dead and wounded women. We don’t know about children or newborns yet.’ 

Video footage from the aftermath of the attack showed that large parts of the hospital had completely collapsed, while blood soaked mattresses were pictured lying in hallways. 

‘Russia committed a huge crime,’ said Volodymir Nikulin, a top regional police official, standing in the ruins. ‘It is a war crime without any justification.’  

Mariupol has been under heavy Russian bombardment for more than a week, with food, water and electricity cut off several days ago – with the Red Cross describing conditions there as ‘apocalyptic’. 

The head of the Ukrainian Red Cross said yesterday’s strike will likely cause a complete collapse of paediatric care in Mariupol, as much of the hospital’s equipment and the paediatric care wards were reduced to ashes.

Local official Pavlo Kyrylenko confirmed the fears in a post on Facebook: The maternity ward in the city centre, the children’s ward and the therapy ward at the hospital – all destroyed in the Russian air raid.’

Just hours before the hospital was hit, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba warned that 3,000 babies were without food or medicines and begged for a humanitarian corridor to allow them to flee. 

Moscow had promised a ceasefire in the city today so civilians could be evacuated, but failed for the fourth time to keep its word – a move Kyrylenko said ‘crossed the line of humanity’ before declaring Russians should ‘stop calling yourselves human beings.’

Residents of Mariupol were pictured on Wednesday dumping bodies into mass graves dug on the outskirts of the city in a desperate attempt to remove the dead amid the sustained Russian bombardment. 

It is not the first time that Russian airstrikes have targeted hospitals. While fighting alongside Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2016, Putin’s generals were accused of ‘deliberately and systematically’ blowing up hospitals as a way of weakening the city of Aleppo ahead of a ground assault. 

Observers have suggested that Russia is now using a Syria-style battleplan against Ukraine after its early precision strikes failed.

The Ukrainian Healthcare Center, a think-tank based in the country, says that between the outbreak of fighting on February 24 and yesterday, their team documented 42 cases of Russian forces attacking either healthcare facilities or medics in order to deliberately provoke a ‘humanitarian crisis’.

Hospitals had been struck in every theatre where Russian forces were operating, the think-tank said, including Donetsk, Luhansk, Mariupol, Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Sumy, Zhytomyr, Zaporizhzhia and Mykolaiv.

‘The humanitarian catastrophe is a part of Russia’s hybrid war. [It] intends to spread panic, create a flow of refugees at the borders and force the Ukrainian government to surrender,’ said Pavlo Kovtonyuk, co-founder of the think-tank.

The bombing took place during what was supposed to be a ceasefire in Mariupol so that civilians could evacuate. It marks the fourth time a so-called ‘humanitarian corridor’ out of the city has failed because Russian forces opened fire. 

The mayor of Izyum, to the east of Kharkiv, said evacuations that were supposed to be underway there yesterday also had to stop because Russians were bombing the escape route. But in Sumy, a short distance away, some civilians had managed to make it out. Successful evacuations also took place in Enerhodar, in the south, with women and children able to leave.

It is feared the evacuations are simply a precursor to Russia stepping up its bombardment of the cities to wear down dogged Ukrainian defenders before rolling in troops and tanks to capture them. CIA Director William Burns, briefing Congress on Putin’s state of mind Tuesday, warned the ‘angry and frustrated’ despot is ‘likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties.’ 

Giving an update on the military situation yesterday afternoon, Ukrainian commanders said Russian units continue to try and surround the capital Kyiv with attacks taking place to the west and north-east of the city, with several highways blocked.

New footage released on Wednesday purported to show Russian armour just 13 miles from Kyiv as the invaders pushed through the town of Irpin. 

Fighting also raged close to the city of Sumy in an attempt to surround Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, commanders said. Battles also broke out around the city of Mykolaiv in the south, as Russians attempted to push out from Kherson towards Odessa but were turned back. 

Ukrainian commanders also said Russian military police had rounded up 400 activists protesting against the invasion in the occupied city of Kherson – as the long arm of Vladimir Putin’s police state reached across the border to grab people on foreign soil.  

Russia’s defence ministry meanwhile acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that some conscripts had been sent to fight on the frontlines in Ukraine, just days after Putin promised that only professional soldiers would be sent in. 

Some associations of soldiers’ mothers in Russia had raised concerns about a number of conscripts going incommunicado at the start of what Kremlin calls a ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, suggesting they could have been sent to fight despite a lack of adequate training. 

The revelation comes just one week after Russia’s parliament passed a law imposing a prison term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally ‘fake’ news about the military.

‘Unfortunately, we have discovered several facts of the presence of conscripts in units taking part in the special military operation in Ukraine. Practically all such soldiers have been pulled out to Russia,’ the defence ministry said, promising to prevent such situations in the future.

Liz Truss described the hospital attack as ‘absolutely abhorrent’, but continued to reject Ukraine’s request for a no-fly zone to be imposed over its skies.

Speaking in Washington, she said: ‘The best way we can protect the skies is through anti-air weaponry which the UK is now going to be supplying to Ukraine.

‘Of course the attack on the hospital is absolutely abhorrent, reckless and appalling.’

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said US involvement in a no-fly zone could ‘prolong’ the conflict, making it ‘even deadlier’.

‘Our goal is to end the war, not to expand it, including potentially expanding it to Nato territory,’ he said.

‘We want to make sure it is not prolonged, to the best of our ability. Otherwise, it is going to turn even deadlier, involve more people and I think potentially even make things harder to resolve in Ukraine itself.’

Earlier, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the MPs that the Ministry of Defence was looking at whether they could supply anti-aircraft missiles as well as more anti-tank weapons.

‘We can all see the horrific devastation inflicted on civilian areas by Russian artillery and air strikes, indiscriminate and murderous,’ he said.

‘It is vital, therefore, that Ukraine maintains its ability to fly and to suppress Russian air attack.’

Mr Wallace said that ‘in response to a Ukrainian request’ the Government was exploring the donation of Starstreak high-velocity man-portable anti-air missiles.

He also confirmed that 3,615 Nlaw anti-tank weapons had been supplied – up from the previously-announced figure of 2,000 – and ‘small consignments’ of the Javelin system would also be sent to Ukraine.

Other Western officials expressed concern that Putin could next resort to the use of ‘non-conventional weapons’ such as chemical weapons, in the conflict. 

One official speaking on condition of anonymity said: ‘I think we’ve got good reason to be concerned about possible use of non-conventional weapons, partly because of what we’ve seen has happened in other theatres.

‘As I’ve mentioned before, for example, what we’ve seen in Syria, partly because we’ve seen a bit of setting the scene for that in the false flag claims that are coming out, and other indications as well.’

Before the rocket attack took place, Mariupol’s deputy mayor spoke about the dire situation in the besieged city – saying residents had been forced to use melted snow as drinking water, as it runs dangerously low on supplies.

Serhiy Orlov admitted that he didn’t know how long the blockaded urban centre would be able to continue under siege as he spoke to CNN’s John Berman about the devastating bombings on Wednesday.

Orlov said today was their fifth attempt to provide a humanitarian corridor to get supplies and transport into Mariupol, but he added that by 3pm local time, the buses had not made it anywhere near the city. 

He said many residents are unable to leave as Mariupol is being bombed ‘each second’, after Russian forces have broken their ceasefire agreement despite agreeing to open ‘humanitarian corridors’ allowing citizens to flee.

‘There is no ceasefire, any ceasefire in Mariupol, Mariupol is under continuous shelling from the artillery and bombing. Each hour, each minute, each second,’ he added.

Mariupol, which has been under blockage for eight days, is one of the Ukrainian cities worst hit since the invasion began, with Russian forces bringing widespread destruction to residential and administrative centres.

Speaking about the devastation across the city, Orlov said Russian forces had destroyed their biggest steel planter as he warned that the situation is ‘unmanageable’.

He praised the bravery of the Ukrainian army, but warned that it is the humanitarian crisis is also worsening, adding: ‘We are not able to protect our lives.’

President Volodymyr Zelensky yesterday warned that the port city was running dangerously low on food, water and medicine.

Ukrainian territorial defence forces have been able to deliver vital supplies to some residents, but many more remain isolated and unable to access lifesaving rations.

Reiterating Zelensky’s stark warning, Orlov said there is no more electricity, heating, gas or water supplies in Mariupol, adding that residents have had to resort to collecting wood to make fires for warmth and using melted snow as drinking water.

‘It’s an awful situation and I cannot imagine in my mind that it’s possible in the 21st century, but it is true,’ he said.

When asked how long the city might be able to continue under siege, Orlov admitted he ‘didn’t know’ as he claimed there are at least 3,000 infants who are currently without food.

American talk show host Berman also asked the deputy mayor whether his own family are safe, after he previously spoken about being unable to reach his parents.

In response, a devastated Orlov said the district where his parents lived has been completely destroyed, saying it ‘does not exist anymore’, as he admitted he doesn’t know if they are alive.

He added: ‘The district where they live is flattened and I’m not sure that I can see them anymore. But I hope and pray they are alive.’

Ukrainian commanders said today that Russia’s attack on the country has ‘slowed significantly’ with no major gains in any sector while its forces were  bolstering defenses in key cities and ‘holding the line.’

In the northern city of Chernihiv, Russian forces are placing military equipment among residential buildings and on farms, the Ukrainian general staff said. And in the south, it said Russians dressed in civilian clothes are advancing on the city of Mykolaiv. It did not provide any details of new fighting.

In Kyiv, back-to-back air alerts Wednesday morning urged residents to get to bomb shelters as quickly as possible over fears of incoming Russian missiles. Soon after an all-clear was given for the first alert, a second alert followed.

Such alerts are common, though irregular, keeping people on edge. Kyiv has been relatively quiet in recent days, though Russian artillery has pounded the outskirts.

Kyiv regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said the crisis for civilians was growing in the capital, with the situation particularly critical in the city’s suburbs.

‘Russia is artificially creating a humanitarian crisis in the Kyiv region, frustrating the evacuation of people and continuing shelling and bombing small communities,’ he said.  

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson continued to resist calls to drop visa requirements for Ukrainians fleeing the violence, insisting the security checks were vital to prevent President Putin infiltrating agents into the UK.

The Prime Minister said a thousand visas had been granted under the scheme allowing relatives of people in Britain to flee the war zone to join their families and he promised another programme allowing individuals to offer a home to Ukrainians would be set out in ‘the next few days’.

More than 2 million people have now fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations.

‘We know how unscrupulous Putin can be in his methods, it would not be right to expose this country to unnecessary security risk and we will not do it,’ he said.

‘We are going to be as generous as we can possibly be, but we must have checks.’

His comments in the Commons followed a call from Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK to temporarily drop the visa requirement.

Vadym Prystaiko hit out at the bureaucracy of the British system, telling MPs: ‘I don’t want to see these pictures of people banging at the doors in Calais and scratching the doors which are quite sealed.’

It came as Russia warned the West that it is working on a broad response to sanctions that would be swift and felt in the West’s most sensitive areas, after the US announced a ban on gas and oil imports – with the UK also banning Russian oil and the EU presenting a plan to wean itself off Russian gas by 2030.

‘Russia’s reaction will be swift, thoughtful and sensitive for those it addresses,’ Dmitry Birichevsky, the director of the foreign ministry’s department for economic cooperation, was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency.

Meanwhile China, which has been attempting to pacify both sides in the conflict, warned that moves by ‘US-led NATO’ have pushed Russia-Ukraine tensions to ‘breaking point’. 

As Moscow’s forces have laid siege to Ukrainian cities, the fighting has thwarted attempts to create corridors to safely evacuate civilians.

One evacuation did appear successful, with Ukrainian authorities saying Tuesday that 5,000 civilians, including 1,700 foreign students, had been brought out via a safe corridor from Sumy, an embattled northeastern city of a quarter-million people.

That corridor was to reopen for 12 hours on Wednesday, with the buses that brought people southwest to the city of Poltava the day before returning to pick up more refugees, regional administration chief Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said.

Priority was being given to pregnant women, women with children, the elderly and the disabled.

In the south, Russian troops have advanced deep along Ukraine’s coastline in what could establish a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

The city of Mariupol has been surrounded by Russian soldiers for days and a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the encircled city of 430,000.

Corpses lie in the streets of the city, which sits on the Asov Sea. Hungry people break into stores in search of food and melt snow for water. Thousands huddle in basements, trembling at the sound of Russian shells pounding this strategic port city.

‘Why shouldn’t I cry?’ Goma Janna demanded as she wept by the light of an oil lamp below ground, surrounded by women and children. ‘I want my home, I want my job. I’m so sad about people and about the city, the children.’

Tuesday brought no relief: An attempt to evacuate civilians and deliver badly needed food, water and medicine through a designated safe corridor failed, with Ukrainian officials saying Russian forces had fired on the convoy before it reached the city.

Mariupol, said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, is in a ‘catastrophic situation.’

Natalia Mudrenko, the highest-ranking woman at Ukraine’s U.N. Mission, told the Security Council that the people of Mariupol have ‘been effectively taken hostage,’ by the siege. Her voice shook with emotion as she described how a 6-year-old died shortly after her mother was killed by Russian shelling. ‘She was alone in the last moments of her life,’ she said.

Authorities in Mariupol planned to start digging mass graves for all the dead. The shelling has shattered buildings, and the city has no water, heat, working sewage systems or phone service.

Theft has become widespread for food, clothes, even furniture, with locals referring to the practice as ‘getting a discount.’ Some residents are reduced to scooping water from streams.

With the electricity out, many people are relying on their car radios for information, picking up news from stations broadcast from areas controlled by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists.

Ludmila Amelkina, who was walking along an alley strewn with rubble and walls pocked by gunfire, said the destruction had been devastating.

‘We don’t have electricity, we don’t have anything to eat, we don’t have medicine. We’ve got nothing,’ she said, looking skyward.

The deputy mayor of Mariupol cast doubt on the evacuations, telling the BBC that Russian forces continued to pound areas where people were trying to gather ahead of being taken out. He said some roads were blocked, while others were mined.

‘So we cannot establish sustainable ceasefire and safety route at the moment,’ Serhiy Orlov said. ‘So we still have… a city in blockade.’

The city is without water, heat, working sewage systems or phone service. Residents have been getting water from streams or by melting snow.

Corpses lay in the streets and authorities planned to start digging mass graves.

With the electricity out, many people are relying on car radios for information, picking up news from stations broadcast from areas controlled by Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists.

The fighting has caused global economic turmoil, with energy prices surging worldwide and stocks plummeting. It also threatens the food supply of millions around the globe who rely on crops farmed in the Black Sea region.

Western countries have rushed weapons to Ukraine and moved to slap Vladimir Putin’s Russia with sanctions.

In a further effort to punish Russia, US President Joe Biden announced a ban on Russian oil imports, and Shell announced it will stop buying oil and gas from Russia.

Ukraine’s military said its forces continued defence operations in the Mariupol suburbs.

The military said ‘demoralised’ Russian forces were looting, commandeering civilian buildings and setting up firing positions in populated areas.

The battle for Mariupol is crucial because its capture could allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Late on Tuesday, Mr Zelensky released a video showing him standing near the presidential offices in Kyiv. Behind him were piles of sandbags, a snow-dusted tree and a few cars.

It was the second video in 24 hours showing him near the country’s seat of power, apparently made to dispel any doubts about whether he had fled the city.