olodymyr Zelensky warned on Monday that tens of thousands of people are likely to have been killed in Vladimir Putin’s massacre in Mariupol as British defence chiefs warned he may use phosphorous munitions in his desperation to seize the city.
They stressed that fighting in the besieged city on the Azov Sea, where tens of thousands of residents remain trapped, was intensifying with Russian generals using tactics of indiscriminate shelling and air strikes which hugely increases the likelihood of civilian casualties.
More than 5,000 civilians are already believed to have been killed in the largely-destroyed city.
The UK military chiefs also warned of “persisting” claims of Mr Putin’s troops using rape as a horrendous weapon of war in Ukraine, as more evidence of war crimes emerges.
In its latest intelligence update, the Ministry of Defence in London said: “Russian forces prior use of phosphorous munitions in the Donetsk Oblast raises the possibility of their future employment in Mariupol as fighting for the city intensifies.”
White phosphorus is highly toxic and causes very severe injuries as it ignites on contact with oxygen and is highly soluble in fat, meaning it grievously burns human flesh.
The MoD added: “Russian shelling has continued in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, with Ukrainian forces repulsing several assaults resulting in the destruction of Russian tanks, vehicles, and artillery equipment.
“Russia’s continued reliance on unguided bombs decreases their ability to discriminate when targeting and conducting strikes while greatly increasing the risk of further civilian casualties.”
Mr Putin is now seeking to seize more of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which includes the Donetsk and Luhansk areas held by Moscow-backed separatists, after his lightning invasion plan, to seize Kyiv within days, failed.
In an overnight briefing, the MoD also emphasised that more and more claims of rape and other sexual violence by Russian military personnel were emerging.
They also stressed that there was growing evidence of the Russian president’s forces committing war crimes after they were forced to retreat from northern Ukraine.
Their grim warnings came after local officials in northern Ukraine said the bodies of 1,200 people had been recovered, with around 300 civilians believed to have been killed in Bucha, near Kyiv, alone.
Mass graves were also found in the town, civilians with their hands tied behind their back had been shot in the head, a sign of execution, and women raped.
Ukrainian men, with their hands in the air, were also reportedly shot dead in another community by retreating Russian soldiers.
In the late night intelligence report, the British military intelligence chiefs said: “Further evidence of alleged Russian war crimes continues to emerge following Russian withdrawal from northern Ukraine.
“This includes the reported discovery of a makeshift grave containing deceased Ukrainian civilians near Burzova.”
The defence chiefs added: “Allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by Russian military personnel persist.”
Britain is leading a campaign – launched in 2014 in London by actress Angelina Jolie and Lord William Hague, when he was Foreign Secretary, for the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict to be brought to justice.