Ukraine’s second city heavily bombed as UN assembly denounces Russia

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Ukraine’s second biggest city, Kharkiv, suffered heavy bombardment on Wednesday, March 2, as Russia’s week-long invasion was denounced by the United Nations in a historic vote and dozens of countries referred Moscow to be probed for potential war crimes.

The biggest attack on a European state since 1945 has caused over 870,000 people to flee, a barrage of sanctions against Russia, and stoked fears of wider conflict in the West unthought-of for decades.

The incursion has yet to overthrow the government in Kyiv but thousands are thought to have died or been injured and it could cause another deep hit to the global economy still emerging from the coronavirus pandemic.

The bombing of Kharkiv, a city of 1.5 million people in eastern Ukraine, has left its center a wasteland of ruined buildings and debris.

“The Russian ‘liberators’ have come,” one Ukrainian volunteer lamented sarcastically, as he and three others strained to carry the dead body of a man wrapped in a bedsheet out of the ruins on a main square.

A UN resolution reprimanding Moscow was supported by 141 of the assembly’s 193 members, passed in a rare emergency session, a symbolic victory for Ukraine that increases Moscow’s international isolation.

“More is at stake even than the conflict in Ukraine itself,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters after the vote. “This is a threat to the security of Europe and the entire rules-based order.”

A total of 38 countries have also referred Russia to the International Criminal Court, which probes alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“We are crystal clear that Putin cannot commit these horrific acts with impunity,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

No one at Russia’s foreign ministry was immediately available for comment when contacted by Reuters out-of-hours.

Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” that it says is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its southern neighbor’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.

The Kremlin said its forces had taken the Black Sea port of Kherson, a southern provincial capital of around 250,000 people strategically placed where the Dnipro River flows into the Black Sea. Kyiv earlier denied this.

Late on Wednesday, Kherson Mayor Igor Kolykhayev said Russian troops were in the streets and had forced their way into the city council building.

An explosion also rocked the Kyiv railway station during the night, where thousands of women and children were being evacuated.

An interior ministry adviser said the blast was caused by wreckage from a downed Russian cruise missile, not a direct rocket strike. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have so far failed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow still sought Ukraine’s “demilitarisation” and that there should be a list of specified weapons that could never be deployed on Ukrainian territory. Moscow opposes Kyiv’s bid to join NATO.

A Ukrainian delegation had left for a second round of talks with Russian officials on a ceasefire after a first round made little progress on Monday, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said Russia must stop bombing if it wants to negotiate.

Disputed death toll

The UN Human Rights Office said it had confirmed the deaths of 227 civilians and 525 injuries during the conflict as of midnight on March 1, mostly caused by “the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area”.

It cautioned that the real toll would be much higher due to reporting delays.

Russia’s defence ministry said 498 Russian soldiers had died and another 1,597 had been wounded since the start of the invasion, the first time Moscow put a figure on its casualties. It said more than 2,870 Ukrainian soldiers and “nationalists” had been killed, Interfax news agency reported.

Ukraine said more than 7,000 Russian soldiers had been killed so far and hundreds taken prisoner.

The numbers given by Moscow and Kyiv could not be independently verified.

After failing to swiftly take major cities and to subdue Ukraine’s military, U.S. officials have said for days that they believe Russia will instead seek to encircle cities, cutting off supply and escape routes, then attacking with a combined force of armor, ground troops and engineers.

At least 25 people have been killed by shelling and air strikes in Kharkiv in the past 24 hours, authorities said.

Pavel Dorogoy, 36, a photographer who lives near the city center, said Russian forces had targeted the council building, which was empty at the time, a telephone exchange, and a television tower.

“Most people hid in the basements for most of the day today and last night… The Russians cannot enter the town so they’re just attacking us from afar,” he said.

Moscow denies targeting civilians.

Company exodus

Russia’s main advance on the capital – a huge armoured column, stretching for miles along the road to Kyiv – has been largely frozen in place for days, Western governments say.

The Kremlin’s decision to launch war – after months of denying such plans – has shocked Russians accustomed to viewing Putin, their ruler of 22 years, as a methodical strategist.

It has also prompted a backlash from global firms.

Apple, Exxon, Boeing and other firms joined an exodus of international companies from Russian markets that has left Moscow financially and diplomatically isolated.

The European Union and the United States also imposed new sanctions on Belarus for its supporting role in the invasion.

SWIFT, the dominant messaging system underpinning global financial transactions, said seven Russian institutions would be excluded from March 12.

Russia’s ruble currency plunged to a new record low on Wednesday, a slide that will hit Russians’ living standards, and the stock market remained closed. The central bank, itself under sanctions, has doubled interest rates to 20%.

In an echo of the post-Soviet economic collapse of the 1990s, Russians have queued at banks to salvage their savings.

And as Russians face pressure worldwide, businessman Roman Abramovich said he would sell London’s Chelsea Football Club and donate money from the sale to help victims of the war.

“I believe this is in the best interest of the club, the fans, the employees, as well as the club’s sponsors and partners,” he said. — Reuters

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