At least 17 wounded in Mariupol maternity hospital airstrike, Ukrainian officials say

A Russian airstrike devastated a maternity hospital on 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.

Ukraine's president calls for still-tougher sanctions against Russia

This image taken from video issued by Mariupol city council shows a maternity hospital in the besieged port city after what Ukrainian officials said was a Russian attack on Wednesday. (The Associated Press)

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A Russian airstrike devastated a maternity hospital Wednesday in Ukraine's 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 the attack wounded at least 17 people, including women near childbirth.

The ground shook more than a kilometre 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 the scene to evacuate victims, carrying out a heavily pregnant and bleeding woman on a stretcher as light snow fell on burning and mangled cars and trees shattered by the blast.

Another woman wailed as she clutched her child. In the courtyard, a blast crater extended at least two storeys deep.

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"Today Russia committed a huge crime," said Volodymir Nikulin, a top regional police official, standing in the wreckage. "It is a war crime without any justification."

In Zhytomyr, a city of 260,000 to the west of Kyiv, bombs fell on two hospitals, one of them a children's hospital, Mayor Serhii Sukhomlyn said on Facebook. He said the number of casualties was still being determined. His report could not be independently confirmed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the Mariupol strike trapped children and others under the rubble.

"A children's hospital. A maternity hospital. How did they threaten the Russian Federation?" Zelensky asked in his nightly video address, switching to Russian to express his horror at the airstrike. "What kind of country is this, the Russian Federation, which is afraid of hospitals, afraid of maternity hospitals, and destroys them?"

He asked the West to impose even tougher sanctions, so Russia "no longer has any possibility to continue this genocide."

Video shared by Zelensky showed cheerfully painted hallways strewn with twisted metal.

"There are few things more depraved than targeting the vulnerable and defenceless," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be held "to account for his terrible crimes."

The World Health Organization said it has confirmed 18 attacks on health facilities and ambulances since the fighting began, killing 10 people. It was not clear if that number included the assault on the maternity hospital.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russia's "unconscionable attacks" in a call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, that also covered diplomatic attempts to roll back the invasion, the U.S. State Department said.

Two weeks into Russia's war in Ukraine, its military is struggling more than expected, but Putin's invading force of more than 150,000 troops retains possibly insurmountable advantages in firepower as it bears down on key cities.

Little change on the ground

Despite often heavy shelling on populated areas, American military officials reported little change on the ground over the past 24 hours, other than Russian progress on the cities of Kharkiv and Mykolaiv. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to assess the larger military situation.

Authorities announced new ceasefires on 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. 

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

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 centre, 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.

Exodus from Kyiv suburbs

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.

A child is carried on a stroller across an improvised path while fleeing Irpin on Wednesday. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

"We have a short window of time at the moment," said Yevhen Nyshchuk, a member of Ukraine's territorial defence forces. "Even if there is a ceasefire 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 metres 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.

About 1,200 people have died in the nine-day siege of the city, Zelensky's office said.

Across the country, thousands of people are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, since Putin's forces invaded.

The United Nations estimates that more than two million people have fled the country — the biggest exodus of refugees in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

Chornobyl concerns

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

The crisis is likely to get worse as Moscow's forces step up their bombardment of cities in response to what appear to be stronger Ukrainian resistance and heavier Russian losses than anticipated.

Echoing remarks from the director of the CIA a day earlier, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Russia's assault will get "more brutal and more indiscriminate" as Putin tries to regain momentum.

Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces members train to use an NLAW anti-tank weapon on the outskirts of Kyiv on Wednesday. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

Britain's Defence Ministry said fighting continued northwest of Kyiv. The cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol were being heavily shelled and remained encircled by Russian forces.

Russian forces advance in south

Russian forces are placing military equipment on farms and amid residential buildings in the northern city of Chernihiv, Ukraine's military said. In the south, Russians dressed in civilian clothes are advancing on the city of Mykolaiv, a Black Sea shipbuilding centre of a half-million people, it said.

The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, is building up defences in cities in the north, south and east, and forces around Kyiv are "holding the line" against the Russian offensive, authorities said.

On Wednesday, some of Ukraine's volunteer fighters trained in a Kyiv park with rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

"I have only one son," said Mykola Matulevskiy, a 64-year-old retired martial arts coach who was with his son, Kostyantin. "Everything is my son."

Now they feel they must fight together. "It's not possible to have it in another way because it's our motherland," he said. "We must defend our motherland, first of all."

Efforts to deliver aid stymied

In Irpin, a city of 60,000, police officers and soldiers helped elderly residents from their homes. One man was hoisted out of a damaged structure on a makeshift stretcher, while another was pushed toward Kyiv in a shopping cart. Fleeing residents said they had been without power and water for the past four days.

Regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said the crisis for civilians is deepening in and around Kyiv, with the situation particularly dire in the 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.

A Polish soldier carries a child as women and children make their way to a train heading to Krakow after fleeing Ukraine, at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on Wednesday. (Visar Kryeziu/The Associated Press)

The situation is even worse 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.

The city took advantage of a lull in the shelling to hurriedly bury 70 people. Some were soldiers, but most were civilians. The work was conducted efficiently and without ceremony. No mourners or families were present to say their good-byes.

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

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