By Tim Lister, Laura Smith-Spark and Olga Voitovych, CNN
An injured woman, heavily pregnant, is carried on a stretcher past the smoldering wreckage of Mariupol’s maternity and children’s hospital. Her face is pale, one hand cradles her belly in a protective gesture. Every window on that side of the building appears to be blown out; wreckage litters the ground around it.
The searing image was taken following what Mariupol city officials said was a Russian airstrike on the hospital Wednesday that injured 17 people, including children, women and doctors. “Three died, among them one child, a girl,” the city council said Thursday.
The city in southeastern Ukraine has been besieged by Russian forces for days, its trapped residents forced to shelter underground, melt snow for water and scavenge for food. Now, even a hospital caring for pregnant women, newborns and children is not safe.
And Mariupol’s hospital wasn’t the only children’s medical facility that authorities said was damaged by Russian forces on Wednesday. Two hospitals in Zhytomyr, west of the capital, Kyiv, had their windows blown out in a Russian airstrike on a thermal power plant and civilian building in the city, the mayor said. One of them was a children’s hospital. There were no casualties and everyone was in a bomb shelter, according to the city’s mayor, Serhii Sukhomlyn.
The rules of war specify that civilians should not be targeted and that medical workers, medical vehicles and hospitals dedicated to humanitarian work cannot be attacked.
But in the past two weeks Russian forces have repeatedly struck medical facilities in Ukraine, prompting claims they are being systematically targeted, despite Russian denials.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been 24 verified attacks on health care facilities in Ukraine so far.
“These attacks have led to at least 12 deaths and 17 injuries. At least 8 of the injured and 2 of the killed were verified to be health workers. The attacks took place between 24 February and 8 March,” WHO said Thursday.
“WHO strongly condemns these attacks. Attacks on health care violate international law and endanger lives. Even in times of conflict, we must protect the sanctity and safety of health care, a fundamental human right.”
A CNN crew in Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, saw patients — including sick children — take cover in a hospital’s underground bomb shelter as air raid sirens wailed.
Stass, 12 years old and heavily bandaged, was unaware that his father was not with him in the hospital at that moment because he was burying the boy’s mother and sister. “I was in the neighbor’s basement when the bomb hit the roof on my side,” he said. “We ran to my granny’s house. Another hit there. My arm is broken. My dad and neighbor brought me here. I was in a coma for two days.”
In a late-night video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced the Mariupol hospital bombing as an “atrocity and “proof of a genocide of Ukrainians,” as he renewed his calls on Western leaders to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
He also called on Russia to explain why it was carrying out strikes on hospitals. “Why were they a threat to the Russian Federation? What kind of country is the Russian Federation that is afraid of hospitals, afraid of maternity wards and destroys them?” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday alleged without evidence the bombed hospital in Mariupol was the radical Azov battalion’s base and that all patients and nurses had left.
Lavrov said Russia informed the UN Security Council meeting about this a few days before the attack. The Azov battalion is integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces but was formerly an independent ultra-nationalist militia.
“On March 7 or 6, I don’t remember exactly now, but at the meeting of the UN Security Council, our delegation presented facts that this maternity hospital had long been captured by the Azov battalion and other radicals,” Lavrov said.
“All the women in labor, all the nurses, in general, all the staff was driven out of there,” Lavrov added.
Video from the hospital after the bombing clearly showed there were both patients and staff there, including pregnant women.
‘Inhumane and cowardly’
French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal condemned the strike against the hospital in Mariupol as “inhumane” and “unjustifiable” in comments Thursday.
“I want to say in the name of the French government that the strike by Russia against Mariupol’s pediatric hospital was inhumane and cowardly. It’s women, children, healthcare workers who were targeted, it’s unjustifiable,” he said in an interview with French radio station RTL.
Calling again for a ceasefire in Ukraine, Attal predicted the worst was yet to come in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also condemned the strike in Mariupol, saying: “There are few things more depraved than targeting the vulnerable and defenceless.”
The United Nations said it was following up “urgently” on “shocking reports” of the bombing of the hospital.
“It bears reminding that we have called, WHO has called for an immediate halt to attacks on health care, hospitals, health care workers, ambulances — none of these should ever, ever be a target,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday.
The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine “continues to deteriorate rapidly,” Dujarric added. More than 2.2 million people have crossed international borders escaping Ukraine since the invasion began, Dujarric said.
Zelensky warned Russian propagandists they “will be held responsible for complicity with war crimes” in a video message Thursday.
“Russian citizens will hate you for consistently lying to them for many years. When they will feel the consequences of your lies, feel with their wallets, their dwindling opportunities, with the stolen futures of the Russian children,” he said, adding that the aggressor also pays a price in war.
His warning came after Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova on Wednesday called for a “new model” of investigative efforts to tackle alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
Efforts to evacuate thousands of civilians trapped in Mariupol, which has been under attack by Russian forces for days, have so far been thwarted. Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of violating agreed pauses in fire.
Disturbing pictures from an Associated Press photographer showed bodies being lowered into a mass grave in the city on Wednesday, some encased in body bags but others apparently wrapped only in blankets.
At least 1,300 civilians have been killed in Mariupol since the Russian invasion began, an adviser to the city’s mayor said Wednesday. CNN cannot independently verify these casualty figures.
The Ukrainian government said Thursday it was opening evacuation corridors in several parts of the country. As of 10 a.m. local time it was unclear whether the corridors — designed to allow civilians to escape to safer regions — had been agreed with Russia or international humanitarian agencies.
A meeting between Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Lavrov in Turkey ended Thursday without an agreement reached on evacuation corridors or a ceasefire, Kuleba said.
At a news conference following the meeting, Kuleba said he had raised the prospect of establishing a corridor to allow civilians to flee from the besieged city of Mariupol but “unfortunately Minister Lavrov was not in a position to commit himself to it.”
Lavrov told a separate news conference that a ceasefire was never going to be agreed in the talks, adding that he had warned his Turkish and Ukrainian counterparts that Russia did not want to create a “parallel track” to talks already taking place alongside the Belarusian border.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukrainian Minister of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, earlier said on Facebook the corridors would apply to three routes in eastern Ukraine — Sumy to Poltava, Trostianets to Poltava and Krasnopilllia to Poltava.
Another route is set to be opened from the eastern city of Izium to the city of Lozova in Kharkiv region. Additionally, she said, the Ukrainians planned to open corridors from Mariupol to Zaporizhzia.
Vereshchuk added that a corridor would be opened from districts north of the capital, Kyiv: Bucha, Borodianka, Irpin and Hostomel. Attempts to evacuate people from those districts Wednesday were only partially successful.
Nonetheless, Zelensky said “all in all almost 35,000 people were rescued” through the routes established Wednesday.
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CNN’s Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych reported from Kyiv, while Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Henrik Pettersson, Mariya Knight, Hira Humayun, Angus Watson, Lindsay Isaac, Richard Roth, Joseph Ataman and Anastasia Graham-Yooll contributed to this report.