The head of the UN human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine has warned that the civilian death toll in Ukraine is thousands higher than the official toll of 3,381, with deaths in the port city of Mariupol alone likely to add significantly to the total.
“We have been working on estimates, but all I can say for now is that it is thousands higher than the numbers we have currently given to you,” Matilda Bogner, the head of the UN human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine, told a press briefing in Geneva, when asked about the total number of deaths and injuries.
“The big black hole is really Mariupol, where it has been difficult for us to fully access and to get fully corroborated information,” she said.
The warning was delivered as dozens more bodies were discovered in the ruins of a burnt out and collapsed five-storey building in Izium in the Kharkiv region, and as the UN migration agency said 8 million people were internally displaced inside Ukraine by the conflict.
“This is another horrible war crime of the Russian occupiers against the civilian population!” Oleh Synehubov, the head of Kharkiv’s regional administration, said in a social media message announcing the deaths.
As both Ukrainian and Russian military officials claimed advances in the battles for the country’s south and east, dominated by a 300-mile-long frontline, the latest phase of the campaign appeared to have settled for now into a grim back and forth struggle over shell smashed villages and small towns.
In the Kharkiv area in particular, the conflict has turned into a long-range shelling war between the two sides. After unexpectedly fierce resistance forced the Kremlin to abandon its effort to storm Kyiv more than a month ago, Moscow’s forces have concentrated on capturing the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial region.
Further west, Ukraine’s vital Black Sea port of Odesa came under repeated missile attack, including from some hypersonic missiles, after Russia marked its biggest patriotic holiday without giving new information about the war. One person was killed and five were wounded, the military said.
As part of the barrage, a Russian supersonic bomber fired three hypersonic missiles, according to the Center for Defence Strategies, a Ukrainian thinktank tracking the war. The centre identified the weapons used as Kinzhal – or “Dagger” – hypersonic air-to-surface missiles although there was no independent verification of what missiles were used.
The strikes on Odesa come amid warnings from the Ukrainian military’s general staff of an elevated missile threat across the country, including claims Russia has increased the number of naval missile carriers operating in the Black Sea.
With the conflict on both sides being defined by intense Russian shelling by artillery and rocket systems, CNN quoted an unnamed defence official on Monday saying the Ukraine military had received 85 of 90 M777 long-range field howitzers promised by the US, along with 100,000 rounds of artillery ammunition out of 184,000 promised.
The defence official said the US military in Europe completed the training of 310 Ukrainian service personnel in handling howitzers with a further 50 undergoing training.
In Mariupol itself, fierce fighting was continuing around the area of the Azovstal steel mill where about 2,000 Ukrainian defenders are still holding out. Despite claims that all civilians who had been sheltering there had been evacuated, it was claimed on Tuesday about 100 were still inside the sprawling plant.
One of the Ukrainian fighters holding out at the steel plant said they were still defending the city.
Valeri Paditel, who heads the border guards in the Donetsk region, said the fighters were “doing everything to make those who defend the city in the future proud”.
While assessments by western defence and intelligence officials, as well as military analysts have focused on the shortcomings of the Russian operation and the heavy losses of men and equipment sustained, there was little evidence of an end in sight for Moscow’s campaign.
“Without concrete steps to build a new force, Russia can’t fight a long war, and the clock starts ticking on the failure of their army in Ukraine,” said Phillips P O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews.
Russia has about 97 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) in Ukraine, largely in the east and the south, a slight increase over last week, according to a senior US. A further 19 BTGs are reported to be just across the Russian border near the city of Belgorod.