Vladimir Putin accused of war crimes as civilians, children killed in mass shelling

London: Vladimir Putin has been accused of committing war crimes in Ukraine after the indiscriminate shelling of residential buildings in the country’s second biggest city potentially killed dozens of civilians including three children.

Ceasefire talks between Ukraine and Russia, aimed at halting Moscow’s invasion, were overshadowed by a deadly rocket assault on Kharkiv that has triggered widespread alarm about the lengths to which the Russian President is willing to go to win the war.

Russian TOS-1 rocket launchers are able to launch up to 30 rockets armed with vacuum bombs or thermobaric warheads.Credit:Wikimedia

Shelling continued into a sixth day in Ukraine, with footage posted to social media on Wednesday afternoon Australian time showing an enormous explosion hitting central Kharkiv, directly in front of a government building. The blast, which engulfed several cars driving past the Kharkiv region administration building, hit at about 8am, two hours after the city’s curfew had lifted.

Russia’s march towards Ukraine’s capital, which has been slowed by fierce resistance, is expected to continue over coming days, with satellite images revealing the military convoy to Kyiv’s north is now estimated to be more than 50 kilometres long. US intelligence reports said it feared Putin had grown increasingly frustrated by the slow-going amid concerns he may see his only option as doubling down on violence.

British intelligence, released by the Ministry of Defence on Tuesday, said the Russian advance on Kyiv had made little progress over the past 24 hours, most likely as a result of continuing logistical difficulties.

Russian forces have increased their use of artillery north of Kyiv and in vicinities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv, with the use of heavy artillery in densely populated urban areas greatly escalating the risk of civilian casualties.

A member of the Ukrainian territorial defence directs cars in a traffic jam ahead of a military checkpoint outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday, February 28.Credit:AP

UK Defence said Russia had failed to gain control of the airspace over Ukraine, prompting a shift to night operations in an attempt to reduce their losses. Few details have been released on the peace discussions, except that a second round could take place “in the near future”.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called for an international tribunal to investigate Russia for its actions in recent days, which he described as war crimes. The bombardment of a residential area, which may have included cluster munitions that are banned by most nations, killed at least nine civilians and wounded dozens.

“Russian troops shelled Kharkiv using rocket artillery,” he said in a video posted to his social media. “This is, without any doubt, a military crime. A peaceful city. Peaceful residential neighbourhoods. Not a single military object in sight.”

“For such a crime, there needs to be a tribunal. An international one. This is a violation of all conventions. No one in the world will forgive you for the murder of peaceful Ukrainian people. This is Ukraine. This is Europe. This is the year 2022. Evil, armed with rockets, bombs and artillery, must be stopped immediately.”

Ukrainian officials said 16 children had been killed in the first four days of fighting, but that number is likely to have risen significantly in the past 24 hours, after the deadliest attacks on civilians since the start of the invasion.

Among the dead was schoolgirl Polina, who was killed by Russian saboteurs in Kyiv along with her parents and brother, according to officials.

Russia has previously deployed the banned weapon, also known as an aerosol bomb, in Chechnya and Syria. Cluster munitions scatter or release smaller munitions or bomblets over a wide area, increasing the potential for casualties and damage.

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine last week was expected to be a quick victory over a smaller and outgunned adversary. But it has inspired widespread resistance with many Ukrainians staying put to try to thwart the invaders.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said her office has confirmed that 102 civilians, including seven children, have been killed in the Russian invasion and 304 others wounded in Ukraine since Thursday. She cautioned that the official tally was likely vastly lower than the reality.

Moscow is facing widespread opposition internationally and has become increasingly isolated as the United States, Britain, France and its allies expand economic sanctions on Russia and on Putin’s allies.

Switzerland is the latest traditionally neutral nation to have joined the growing sanction regime, by freezing Russian financial assets, while Israel is poised to join a vote condemning Russia at the United Nations. Jerusalem has long been cautious in its dealings with Moscow, due to the presence of Russian forces in Syria that co-ordinate with Israel, as well as the large number of Jews in Ukraine.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, said he intends to open an investigation into alleged war crimes.

He said in a statement the investigation would look at alleged crimes committed before the recent Russian invasion, but added that “given the expansion of the conflict in recent days, it is my intention that this investigation will also encompass any new alleged crimes falling within the jurisdiction of my office that are committed by any party to the conflict on any part of the territory of Ukraine”.

The European Union is warning more than 7 million Ukrainians could flee their homes, leading to a wave of refugees that would dwarf the 2015 migration crisis and rival the turmoil that followed World War II, when more than 12 million people were displaced.

At least 500,000 Ukrainians have crossed west into neighbouring countries since the start of the fighting, the UN refugee agency said. An estimated 120,000 are thought to have moved to Russia from Russian-occupied territory in the south-east of the country. About 160,000 have gone to Poland, which could accept as many as 1.5 million refugees over the crisis.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Tuesday Australia would send a $105 million package of weapons along with humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. About $70 million of defensive support would be provided to Ukraine, which would include missiles and ammunition. A further $35 million would be spent on humanitarian assistance such as shelter, food and medical care.

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