Civilians flee from Eastern Ukraine as battle rages for besieged city of Mariupol

Civilians were fleeing from areas of Eastern Ukraine on Tuesday ahead of an anticipated Russian offensive, while Kyiv said it was checking reports that Russian forces had used chemical weapons in the besieged port city of Mariupol.

U.S. says it's not able to confirm reports of chemical weapon use by Russian forces

Pro-Russian troops drive an armoured vehicle in Mariupol on Monday. The Ukrainian port city has been bombarded by Russian forces for weeks. (Chingis Kondarov/Reuters)

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Civilians were fleeing from areas of Eastern Ukraine on Tuesday ahead of an anticipated Russian offensive, while Kyiv said it was checking reports that Russian forces had used chemical weapons in the besieged port city of Mariupol.

The battle for Mariupol was reaching a decisive phase, with Ukrainian marines holed up in the Azovstal industrial district.

Should the Russians seize Azovstal, they would be in full control of Mariupol, the linchpin between Russian-held areas to the west and east. The city has already been laid waste by weeks of Russian bombardments that have killed possibly thousands of civilians.

A woman walks past a destroyed theatre and near a pro-Russian armoured vehicle in Mariupol on Sunday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said the government was checking unverified information that Russia may have used chemical weapons while besieging Mariupol.

"There is a theory that these could be phosphorus munitions," Malyar said in televised comments.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an early morning address on Wednesday that it was not possible to draw 100 per cent firm conclusions about whether Russian forces had used chemical weapons in Mariupol, noting it was not possible to conduct a proper investigation there.

Zelensky said what he called repeated threats by some in Russia to use chemical weapons meant that the West needed to act now to prevent such weapons from being deployed. He did not give details.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, wrote on Twitter that the Ukrainian troops defending Mariupol are running low on supplies.

"Our soldiers remain blocked and have issues with supplies," Podolyak wrote, noting that Zelensky and the Ukrainian general staff are working "to find a solution and help our guys." He did not give details, citing operational reasons.

U.S. not able to confirm reports, Blinken says

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the reports of the use of chemical weapons coming from Mariupol. "We're not in a position to confirm anything, I don't think Ukrainians are either," Blinken told reporters.

"But let me say that we had credible information that Russian forces may use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, that would cause stronger symptoms to weaken, incapacitate ... Ukrainian fighters and civilians, as part of the aggressive campaign" in Mariupol.

Blinken said the U.S. shared that information with Ukraine and other partners. "We're in direct conversation with partners to try to determine what actually is happening," he said.

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Chemical weapons production, use and stockpiling are banned under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Although condemned by human rights groups, white phosphorus is not banned under the CWC.

Earlier, the U.S. and Britain said they were trying to verify the reports. If Russia had used chemical weapons, "all options were on the table" in response, British Junior Defence Minister James Heappey said in London.

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The governor of the eastern Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said he had seen incident reports on possible chemical weapons use in Mariupol but could not confirm them.

"We know that last night around midnight, a drone dropped some so-far unknown explosive device, and the people that were in and around the Mariupol metal plant, there were three people, they began to feel unwell," he told CNN.

They were taken to hospital and their lives were not in danger, he said.

Asked about the total number of dead in Mariupol, Kyrylenko said, "We are currently discussing 20-22,000 people dead," adding that the figure needed to be checked very carefully.

Russians redoubling efforts in east

The Russian Defence Ministry has not yet responded to a Reuters request for comment. Russian-backed separatist forces in the east denied using chemical weapons in Mariupol, the Interfax news agency reported.

But should it prove to be the case, it would mark a dangerous new development in a war that has already left a trail of death and destruction since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops over the border on Feb. 24.

About a quarter of Ukraine's 44 million population have been forced from their homes, cities have been turned into rubble and thousands of people have been killed or injured — many of them civilians.

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Putin calls the action a "special military operation" to demilitarize and "denazify" Ukraine, but it has drawn condemnation and alarm in the West, which has imposed a wide range of sanctions to squeeze the Russian economy.

After their troops got bogged down in the face of Ukrainian resistance, the Russians abandoned their bid to capture the capital Kyiv for now. But they are redoubling their efforts in the east, and Ukrainian forces are digging in to face a new offensive.

The governor of Luhansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, urged residents to evacuate using five humanitarian corridors agreed to for the east.

"It's far more scary to remain and burn in your sleep from a Russian shell," he wrote on the Telegram messaging app. "Evacuate, with every day the situation is getting worse. Take your essential items and head to the pickup point."

In all, nine humanitarian corridors had been agreed to for Tuesday, including one for private cars from Mariupol, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

A man embraces his wife, who is about to board a train at Slovyansk central station in the Donbas on Tuesday. Ukrainian leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the Donbas have asked civilians to evacuate west in reaction to an anticipated Russian offensive to take the eastern region. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, a strike hit what is believed to be a culinary school near the airport in Ukraine's second-largest city on Tuesday, destroying the building and damaging others nearby, according to Associated Press journalists at the scene.

It wasn't clear what hit the building in Kharkiv, with witnesses describing a loud whoosh followed by an explosion. There were no immediate reports of fatalities.

Pro-Russian Ukrainian politician detained

Ukrainian officials said fugitive Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who is both a former leader of a pro-Russian opposition party and a close associate of Putin, has been detained in a special operation carried out by the country's SBU secret service.

Ivan Bakanov, the head of Ukraine's national security agency, said on the agency's Telegram channel that Medvedchuk had been arrested. The statement came shortly after Zelensky posted on social media a photo of Medvedchuk sitting in handcuffs and wearing a camouflage uniform with a Ukrainian flag patch.

Medvedchuk was the former leader of the pro-Russian party Opposition Platform – For Life. He was being held under house arrest before the war began and disappeared shortly after hostilities broke out.

Putin is the godfather to Medvedchuk's youngest daughter.

Earlier, Zelensky pleaded for more weapons from the West to help it end the siege of Mariupol and fend off an expected Russian offensive in the east.

"Unfortunately, we are not getting as much as we need to end this war faster ... in particular, to lift the blockade of Mariupol," he said.

The departure of Russian forces from the outskirts of Kyiv has brought to light allegations of war crimes, including executions and rape of civilians. Moscow dismisses the allegations as Ukrainian and Western provocations and has also accused Ukrainian forces of sexual violence.

French forensics investigators, who arrived in Ukraine for the investigation of war crimes amid Russia's invasion, stand next to a mass grave in the town of Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Tuesday. (Wladyslaw Musiienko/The Associated Press)

Senior United Nations official Sima Bahous told the Security Council on Monday that while all allegations must by independently investigated, "the brutality displayed against Ukrainian civilians has raised all red flags."

"We are increasingly hearing of rape and sexual violence," she said.

A relative reacts after the body of a civilian was exhumed from a shallow grave near the village of Andriivka on Monday. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia's deputy UN ambassador denied the allegations and accused Ukraine and allies of "a clear intention to present Russian soldiers as sadists and rapists."

Russia's Defence Ministry said Ukraine's government was being directed by the United States to sow false evidence of Russian violence against civilians, despite what it cast as Moscow's "unprecedented measures to save civilians."

Electricity grid targeted by hackers, Ukraine says

Meanwhile, Ukraine said on Tuesday it had thwarted an attempt by Russian hackers last week to damage its electricity grid with a cyberattack.

"This is a military hacking team," government spokesperson Victor Zhora said. "Their aim was to disable a number of facilities, including electricity substations.

"They did not succeed, and we're investigating."

A man walks with a bicycle next to a truck that carries black bags with corpses of people killed during the war with Russia and exhumed from a mass grave for investigations in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Monday. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

Kyiv blamed the attack on a group dubbed "Sandworm" by researchers and previously tied to cyberattacks attributed to Russia. The attack was likely carried out to support Russian military activities in Eastern Ukraine, Zhora said.

Russian officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Tuesday. Moscow has consistently denied accusations it has launched cyberattacks on Ukraine.

With files from The Associated Press