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U.S. warns of Russian chemical weapons attack; Mariupol buries dead in mass graves

The besieged city of Mariupol has been without electricity, heat, water or food for many days and Ukrainian officials have called the situation there catastrophic.
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Ukrainian officials on Wednesday accused Russia of destroying a children’s hospital in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, as efforts continue to evacuate civilians from areas worst hit by Russia’s almost two-week-old invasion.

The head of Ukraine's Donetsk region said 17 people were wounded in the attack, including staff and mothers in the maternity ward. There were no immediate reports of injured children or deaths.

In the southeastern port city of Mariupol, meanwhile, workers began burying scores of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers in a mass grave after days of bombardment.

In the United States, officials warned that Russia could try to justify the invasion by launching a chemical or biological weapons attack — and blaming it on Ukraine. The warning came after a Russian official said the country was preparing to use poisonous substances in the war, a claim White House press secretary Jen Psaki called “preposterous.”

The Biden Administration also said it would not participate in a Polish offer to provide jets to Ukraine by way of a U.S. base in Germany. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the proposal would give the country “little increased capabilities at a high risk.”

Russia destroyed children's hospital, maternity ward in Mariupol, officials say

Residents in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol once again saw their hopes dashed after Ukrainian officials accused Russia of shelling the evacuation route.

On Wednesday, the city council said Russian airstrikes there destroyed a children's hospital. “The destruction is enormous,” it said in a Telegram post. Video on the post showed a charred building missing windows and surrounded by piles of debris. Zelenskyy also tweeted a video of what he said was a maternity ward hit by the strikes.

NBC News has verified the videos of the destruction.

The city has been without electricity, heat, water or food for many days and Ukrainian officials have called the situation there catastrophic. Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russia of holding 400,000 residents hostage by continuing to shell the city.

Orchestra plays national anthem in central Kyiv as Russian forces advance

On a Kyiv square where recent popular uprisings have scuppered Moscow's ambitions in Ukraine, an orchestra assembled before a small crowd Wednesday to play the national anthem as Russian forces advanced on the city.

The Kyiv-Classic Symphony Orchestra also performed an excerpt from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," on which the European Union's anthem is based — a nod to the Ukraine government's desire to move closer to Europe and away from Russia's orbit.

Dozens of people gathered to watch on the central Maidan Square, some waving Ukrainian flags. They applauded when the national anthem was finished and a woman cried out "To Ukraine!"

The lyrics of the anthem include the lines, "Ukraine has not yet perished ... our enemies will vanish like dew in the sun."

Conductor Herman Makarenko told reporters that the concert was a call for peace.

"We would like to support our president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who called, calls and will call to all governments of the world [to] stop the war in Ukraine."

He said he managed to gather around 20 musicians for the performance, instead of the 65-70 who normally make up the ensemble.

Amnesty: Chernihiv strike that killed 47 is a possible war crime

Amnesty International has accused Russia of killing 47 civilians in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv last week, an act it said "may constitute a war crime."

The human rights group said Wednesday that multiple bombs hit a small public square at about 12.15 p.m. local time March 3, citing its own investigation, based on interviews and video footage.

The Chernihiv Regional Administration said last week that 38 men and nine women were killed in the strike.

Amnesty said that satellite imagery shows people were likely waiting in line for food at the time. The group also said it couldn't find a legitimate military target at or near the scene of the attack.

Russia has not commented on the incident and maintains that its invasion of Ukraine is a limited military operation.

“The airstrike that hit the streets of Chernihiv shocks the conscience. This was a merciless, indiscriminate attack on people as they went about their daily business in their homes, streets and shops,” said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International’s crisis response director.

Nuclear watchdog: Chernobyl nuclear power plant's loss of power grid access poses 'no critical impact on safety'

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant losing access to Ukraine's national power grid should not pose a "critical impact on safety," the International Atomic Energy Agency has said. 

The IAEA said Ukraine had informed it that the power plant had been cut off from access to the national power grid Wednesday, with officials blaming Russian military actions. 

The agency said the development violates a "key safety pillar" but posed no critical impact. 

Diesel generators are being used to power the plant, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the generators only have a 48-hour capacity. After that, he warned that cooling systems for spent nuclear fuel would stop, "making radiation leaks imminent." 

The IAEA said, however, that "due to time elapsed since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the heat load of the spent fuel storage pool and the volume of cooling water contained in the pool is sufficient to maintain effective heat removal without the need for electrical supply."

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the Biden administration supports the IAEA's assessment.

"While there is no near-term risk to public health, these latest developments are another example of Russia’s extraordinarily reckless and dangerous actions," tweeted Granholm, who said that her department will continue to coordinate with federal and international partners. 

A lion, which was in an animal shelter in Kyiv, is seen in a cage at the Natuurhulpcentrum nature center in Oudsbergen, Belgium, on Wednesday.

Clement Rossignol / Reuters
A lion, who was in an animal shelter in Kyiv, is seen in a cage at "Natuurhulpcentrum" nature center in Oudsbergen, Belgium on Wednesday.
Clement Rossignol / Reuters

Congressional leaders reach government funding deal with almost $14B in Ukraine aid

House and Senate appropriators struck a bipartisan deal early Wednesday on a massive bill to fund the federal government through September and provide nearly $14 billion in aid for Ukraine.

The House is expected to vote on the $1.5 trillion package Wednesday, with a possible vote in the Senate by the end of the week. The bipartisan agreement is the culmination of months of negotiations on Capitol Hill that resulted in a prolonged stalemate between Democrats and Republicans.

The nearly $13.6 billion devoted to Ukraine includes $6.5 billion for the Defense Department, with $3.5 billion to replenish equipment sent to Ukraine and $3 billion for U.S. troops who are helping to defend NATO in Europe. The bill would also provide money for humanitarian aid, to support Ukraine's energy grid and to combat disinformation.

Read the full story.

Ukraine calls for urgent cease-fire to restore power to Chernobyl nuclear power plant

Ukraine has warned of dangerous radiation leaks from the Chernobyl power station unless Russia allows an urgent cease-fire for crews to reconnect it to the national power grid.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wednesday the power plant would be connected to back-up diesel generators after officials said it was disconnected from the national power grid due to Russia's military actions.

However, he said this was only a temporary solution and warned that a failure to fully reconnect the site could lead to the release of radioactive substances. 

"Reserve diesel generators have a 48-hour capacity to power" the plant, Kuleba said in a tweet. "After that, cooling systems of the storage facility for spent nuclear fuel will stop, making radiation leaks imminent."

"Putin’s barbaric war puts entire Europe in danger," Kuleba continued. "He must stop it immediately!"

Energoatom, Ukraine's nuclear power operator, had warned earlier Wednesday that the situation could lead to the release of radioactive substances because the plant cannot cool spent nuclear fuel without a power connection. 

It further warned that "the wind can transfer the radioactive cloud to other regions of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Europe."

NBC News has contacted the International Atomic Energy Agency for comment but has not yet gotten a response. We are also attempting to get comment from the Russian government. 

Ukrainians cross an improvised path under a destroyed bridge while fleeing Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Wednesday.

Ukrainians cross an improvised path under a destroyed bridge while fleeing Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Wednesday.
Felipe Dana / AP

Ukraine's president says allies must 'close the sky' over Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said Ukraine's allies will "share the responsibility" for the "humanitarian catastrophe" unfolding in his country if they do not "close the skies" over the nation. 

Zelenskyy said Ukraine had asked its partners to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine "from the first day" of the conflict. 

Now, 14 days later, he said, Ukraine continues to come under "constant bombing."

"Russia has been using missiles, helicopters, aviation against us, civilians, cities, infrastructure," Zelenskyy said. "This is a humanitarian obligation for the whole world to react — but there is no decision."

Zelenskyy said he was grateful to Poland for its willingness to supply Ukraine with Soviet-era fighter jets in a plan that would see Poland offer up old Russian-made MiG fighters, with the U.S. replacing them by sending F-16 jets to Warsaw. 

That proposal appeared to hit a snag on the U.S. side, however, with three U.S. officials telling NBC News that the Biden administration was reviewing whether the plan is feasible. The officials cautioned that such a plan was unlikely to be enacted any time soon.

“It’s a lot easier to give hand-held weapons than it is to transfer a plane,” a source familiar with the discussions said on Monday. The U.S. also does not have a surplus of F-16s, officials said.

Zelenskyy struck out at the uncertainty, asking when a decision would be made.

"We are at war, we have no time for these signals. It's not a ping pong game — it's human lives we are talking about," he said. "We ask again — don't toss responsibility, just send us the planes."

Carol E. Lee and Dan De Luce contributed to this post.

Ukraine facing major regional internet outages as Russian invasion continues

Internet outages in Ukraine are becoming more common — with at least one city almost completely offline for a week — as Russia continues its advance on the country, cutting off civilians’ connections with the rest of the world.

While war zones are inherently hectic, the British ministry of defense warned Monday that “Russia is probably targeting Ukraine’s communications infrastructure in order to reduce Ukrainian Citizens’ access to reliable news and information.”

John Spencer, the chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum in New York City, said that eliminating communications infrastructure is often a first objective for an invading army.

“Step one of invading a country is to take out the enemy’s ability to talk to each other,” he said.

Read more here

Chernobyl nuclear power plant disconnected from power grid, officials say

Ukrainian officials said Wednesday that the Chernobyl nuclear plant was disconnected from the national power grid due to Russia's military actions. 

"BECAUSE OF MILITARY ACTIONS OF RUSSIAN OCCUPIERS NUCLEAR POWER PLANT IN CHERNOBYL WAS FULLY DISCONNECTED FROM THE POWER GRID," the  Ukrainian Mining and Energy Ministry said on its Facebook page.

Energoatom, Ukraine's nuclear power operator, warned that the situation could lead to the release of radioactive substances because the plant cannot cool spent nuclear fuel without a power connection. 

"The wind can transfer the radioactive cloud to other regions of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Europe," it warned in a Telegram post.

It also said that if the situation continued, "all personnel there will receive a dangerous dose of radiation."

Ukraine's parliament, known as the Verkhovna Rada, also announced the development on its official Telegram channel, warning that the nuclear plant had been cut off from the power supply.

It said there was no possibility of restoring the lines due to ongoing fighting and said the city of Slavutich was also disconnected from the power supply. 

NBC News has contacted the International Atomic Energy Agency for comment but has not yet had a response. We are also attempting to get comment from the Russian government. 

Diners at a McDonald's restaurant in Moscow on Wednesday as some major brands continue to pull out of Russia.

Diners at a McDonald's restaurant in Moscow on Wednesday as some major brands continue to pull out of Russia.
AFP - Getty Images

Workers at nuclear power plant 'exhausted' after being held hostage for days, minister says

Workers at a nuclear power plant that was attacked and taken over by Russian forces have been left "physically and psychologically exhausted" after being held hostage for four days, Ukraine's energy minister has said.

In a Facebook post Tuesday, Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenk accused Russian forces of torturing the staff at the Zaporizhzhia plant.

"There are about 500 Russian soldiers and 50 units of heavy equipment inside the station," he said. 

Halushchenk called on Ukraine's international partners "to take all measures to withdraw Russian occupation forces from captured nuclear objects and close the sky over Ukraine."

The energy minister also warned that "a breakdown at a nuclear power plant due to the use of weapons by Russian troops will lead to a disaster for the whole of Europe. The responsibility for this will be entirely on Russia."

Russians flee Putin's crackdown as Ukraine invasion reshapes Moscow's future

With Russia cracking down on dissent and being hit with more international sanctions than Iran and North Korea, some fear a new “Iron Curtain” may be closing as Putin leaves his country deeply isolated both culturally and economically from a scornful world.

“We were very scared,” said Aglaia, a student and activist who managed to get a rare plane ticket Thursday with her family to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, one of the few nearby places where Russian flights aren’t banned. “We just had this feeling of deep, deep sadness — but also mixed with anger.”

Read more here

Ukraine renews effort to free civilians as isolated Russia promises cease-fires

Ukraine launched a fresh effort to evacuate residents from battered areas across the country Wednesday, a day after thousands escaped the Russian assault through the war's first successful safe corridor.

Russian forces have besieged Ukrainian cities but struggled to make progress in their military offensive after nearly two weeks of an increasingly devastating war. Hundreds of civilians have died and more than 2 million people have fled to neighboring countries in the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Read more here

E.U. expands sanctions against Russian oligarchs and Belarusian banks

The European Union has approved new sanctions against more Russian oligarchs and their families, the E.U. Council’s French presidency announced on Wednesday.

Three Belarusian banks will be excluded from the SWIFT payment clearing system and cryptocurrencies will also be affected by the new measures, it said in a tweet.

Sanctions targeting the maritime industry were also approved by the Council's permanent member states.

Women and children cross into Poland at the Hrebenne border on Wednesday.

Women and children cross into Poland at the Hrebenne border on Wednesday.
Mo Abbas / NBC News

As millions flee, many are entering Ukraine — some to join the resistance, officials say

As millions flee Ukraine, thousands of people are also entering the country, with many determined to join the fight against Russia's invasion. 

On Tuesday night alone, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine said as many as 14,500 people had arrived in the country. 

Almost 12,000 of them were Ukrainians, mostly men planning to join the country's defense. It is unclear which nationalities were represented among the outstanding 2,500 or why they had entered Ukraine.

People from around the world, including U.S. veterans, however, have vowed to join the country's fight against Russia's attack.  Ukraine has also put out the call for foreign fighters to join the effort, with the country establishing the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine.

Russia, Ukraine establish ceasefire on humanitarian corridors to allow evacuation

Russia has said it will temporarily stop military advances to allow evacuations, Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a briefing Wednesday.

Russia has committed to observe the ceasefire from 09:00 to 21:00 local time (2 a.m. to 2 p.m. ET) along several humanitarian corridors, including Enerhodar to Zaporizhia, Sumy to Poltava and Mariupol to Zaporizhia, Vereshchuk said.

Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council said there would be a special operation to allow children and staff members from an orphanage in the village of Vorzel to leave the area..

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday it had confirmed the humanitarian corridor routes from the Russian side, Vereshchuk said.

Ukraine accused Russian forces of violating a cease-fire agreement on Tuesday by shelling a humanitarian corridor from Zaporizhzhia to Mariupol as buses waited to collect evacuees.

Ukrainian biathlete pulls out of event after father captured by Russian forces

Ukrainian biathlete Anastasiia Laletina was forced to pull out of the middle distance sitting event at the Beijing Winter Paralympics on Tuesday after her father was captured by Russian forces, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian paralympic committee told Reuters.

Laletina's father is a soldier in the Ukrainian army. The spokesperson said they had no further details on his capture.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine last month, which Moscow describes as a "special operation" to disarm the country, prompted the International Paralympic Committee to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from the Games

U.N. warns of risk of gender-based violence, sexual abuse as more than 2M flee Ukraine

The United Nations' humanitarian affairs office has warned of the risk of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse as hundreds of thousands of people flee Ukraine. 

In a situation report on the humanitarian impact of Russia's invasion in Ukraine, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that with more than two million people forced to flee Ukraine, the situation was "generating evergrowing protection risks." 

It said that the possibility of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse were among those risks "as the majority of people on the move are women and children." 

UNICEF has said that of the more than two million people who have already fled Ukraine, around half are believed to be children.

"Persistent challenges in accessing basic goods and services and lack of access to safe shelter leave women and girls extremely vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and violence," OCHA said in its situation report.

The U.N. body said that while specialized services, including gender-based violence hotlines, had been reported to remain partially functional, it said access was "extremely limited for both staff and survivors due to the ongoing hostilities and movement restrictions." 

'Relentless shelling' causing major destruction across Ukraine, U.N. agency says

As fighting continues across Ukraine "relentless shelling" is causing major damage and destruction across the country, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has warned.

In addition to the rising number of deaths, the office said in a report Tuesday night that the "destruction of civilian objects continues to be reported."

"According to the Government of Ukraine, relentless shelling across the country has damaged or destroyed more than 210 schools, at least 34 hospitals and more than 1,500 residential buildings, figures that continue to climb with each passing day," its report said. 

The report said Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, has called on on all parties of the conflict to "allow the safe passage of civilians out of hardest-hit areas and safe delivery of humanitarian supplies into those areas"

Family and friends lay flowers on Ukrainian soldier's grave

Men dig graves for Ukrainian soldiers Ivan Koverznev and Viktor Dudar, who were both killed on March 2 in the war launched by Russia, at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv on Tuesday.
Men dig graves for soldiers at the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv on Tuesday.Oksana Parafeniuk / NBC News
Family members and friends put flowers on the grave of a Ukrainian soldier Ivan Koverznev at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv on Tuesday.
Family members and friends are seen putting flowers on the grave of Ukrainian soldier Ivan Koverznev, who was killed on March 2.Oksana Parafeniuk / NBC News

IMF considers $1.4 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine

The International Monetary Fund will consider approving $1.4 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine on Wednesday.

“We have sent to our executive board a proposal they will consider for approval tomorrow for $1.4 billion in support for Ukraine, to help it cope with the shock caused by this war,” Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said Tuesday.

This aid is in addition to a separate $700 million payment agreed in December. Georgieva said the IMF had also provided a $2.7 billion Special Drawing Rights allocation — a supplement to its official reserves — that has come in “very handy” to Ukraine.

IMF said it was increasing contact with Ukraine and said talks were ongoing despite the “sirens that can be heard even as discussions go on".

Russian forces fail to advance in Kyiv, British defense ministry says

Russian forces continued to shell major Ukrainian cities but have yet to make significant breakthroughs in the capital of Kyiv, according to the British defense ministry.

"Fighting north-west of Kyiv remains ongoing," the ministry said in an intelligence update published Wednesday. 

The Ukrainian air defense system has also held up against Russia's aerial forces, preventing them from achieving "any degree of control of the air," the ministry said. 

However, the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol remain encircled and are suffering heavy Russian shelling, it said.

Air alert declared in Kyiv

An air alert was declared Wednesday morning in and around Kyiv, with residents urged to get to bomb shelters as quickly as possible.

“Kyiv region – air alert. Threat of a missile attack. Everyone immediately to shelters,” regional administration head Oleksiy Kuleba said on Telegram.

Nearly two weeks into the invasion, Russian troops have advanced deep along Ukraine’s coastline. The city of Mariupol, which sits on the Azov Sea, has been surrounded by Russian soldiers for days and a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the encircled city of 430,000

For days, as Moscow’s forces have laid siege to Ukrainian cities, attempts to create corridors to safely evacuate civilians have stumbled amid continuing fighting.

Across the country, thousands of people are thought to have been killed, both civilians and soldiers, in nearly two weeks of fighting. Russian forces have seen their advances stopped in certain areas — including around Kyiv, the capital, — by fiercer resistance than expected from the Ukrainians.