Airstrike hits maternity hospital as fighting continues in Ukraine

Evgeniy Maloletka
The Associated Press

MARIUPOL, Ukraine — A Russian airstrike devastated a maternity hospital Wednesday in the besieged port city of Mariupol amid growing warnings from the West that Moscow’s invasion is about to take a more brutal and indiscriminate turn. Ukrainian officials said at least 17 people were wounded in the attack.

The ground shook more than a mile away when the Mariupol complex was hit by a series of blasts that blew out windows and ripped away much of the front of one building. Police and soldiers rushed to scene to evacuate victims, carrying out a heavily pregnant and bleeding woman on a stretcher.

Another woman wailed as she clutched her child. In the courtyard, mangled cars burned and a blast crater extended at least two stories deep.

“Today 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.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter that there were “people, children under the wreckage” and called the strike an “atrocity.” Video shared by Zelenskyy showed cheerfully painted hallways strewn with twisted metal.

“There are few things more depraved than targeting the vulnerable and defenseless,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted.

Cease-fires announced: Authorities, meanwhile, announced new cease-fires Wednesday morning to allow thousands of civilians to escape bombarded towns around Kyiv as well as the cities of Mariupol, Enerhodar and Volnovakha in the south, Izyum in the east and Sumy in the northeast.

It was not immediately clear whether anyone was able to leave other cities, but people streamed out of Kyiv’s suburbs, many headed for the city center, as explosions were heard in the capital and air raid sirens sounded repeatedly.

From there, the evacuees planned to board trains bound for western Ukrainian regions not under attack.

Slow going: Civilians leaving the Kyiv suburb of Irpin were forced to make their way across the slippery wooden planks of a makeshift bridge, because the Ukrainians blew up the concrete span leading to Kyiv days ago to slow the Russian advance.

With sporadic gunfire echoing behind them, firefighters dragged an elderly man to safety in a wheelbarrow, a child gripped the hand of a helping soldier, and a woman inched her way along, cradling a fluffy cat inside her winter coat. They trudged past a crashed van with the words “Our Ukraine” written in the dust coating its windows.

“We have a short window of time at the moment,’’ said Yevhen Nyshchuk, a member of Ukraine’s territorial defense forces. “Even if there is a cease-fire right now, there is a high risk of shells falling at any moment.”

Previous attempts to establish safe evacuation corridors over the past few days largely failed because of what the Ukrainians said were Russian attacks. But Putin, in a telephone call with Germany’s chancellor, accused militant Ukrainian nationalists of hampering the evacuations.

In Mariupol, a strategic city of 430,000 people on the Sea of Azov, local authorities hurried to bury the dead from the past two weeks of fighting in a mass grave. City workers dug a trench some 25 yards long at one of the city’s old cemeteries and made the sign of the cross as they pushed bodies wrapped in carpets or bags over the edge.

Death toll: About 1,200 people have died in the nine-day siege of the city, Zelenskyy’s office said.

Nationwide, thousands are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, since Putin’s forces invaded. The U.N. estimates more than 2 million people have fled the country, the biggest exodus of refugees in Europe since the end of World War II.

The fighting knocked out power to the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant, raising fears about the spent radioactive fuel that is stored at the site and must be kept cool. But the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said it saw “no critical impact on safety” from the loss of power.

The situation is dire in Mariupol, where efforts to evacuate residents and deliver badly needed food, water and medicine failed Tuesday because of what the Ukrainians said were continued Russian attacks.

During Wednesday’s break in shelling, Mariupol authorities hastily buried 70 people. Some were soldiers, but most were civilians.

The work was conducted efficiently and without ceremony. No mourners were present, no families to say their goodbyes.

One woman stood at the gates of the cemetery to ask whether her mother was among those being buried. She was.