Hundreds of bodies found in Mariupol basement, Ukrainian authorities say

Undertakers lower the coffin of Ukrainian serviceman Oleksander Matyukhin, 32, in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine,
Undertakers lower the coffin of Ukrainian serviceman Oleksander Matyukhin, 32, in Kharkiv. Credit: AP

Workers digging through the rubble of an apartment building in Mariupol have found 200 bodies in the basement, according to Ukrainian authorities.

Mayoral staff confirmed grim reminders of the horrors inflicted on the region are still coming to light in the ruined city.

The bodies were decomposing, and a stench permeated the neighbourhood, said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor.

It's not clear when they were discovered.

A Ukrainian soldier stands inside the ruined Azovstal steel plant prior to surrender to the Russian forces in Mariupol. Credit: Dmytro Kozatski/Azov Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard Press Office

Perched on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol was relentlessly pounded during a months-long siege.

A siege which finally ended last week after around 2,500 Ukrainian fighters abandoned a steel plant where they had made their last stand. Russian forces already held the rest of the city.

An estimated 100,000 people remain in the city (out of a pre-war population of 450,000 dwindled by people fleeing) many of whom are now trapped without food, water, heat or electricity.

Ukrainian authorities have said at least 21,000 people have been killed — and accused Russia of trying to cover up the extent of the horrors by bringing in mobile cremation equipment.

Cars pass by destroyed Russian tanks in a recent battle against Ukrainians close to Kyiv Credit: AP

They have also alleged some of the dead were buried in mass graves.

Strikes have hit a maternity hospital and a theatre where civilians were sheltering in the time Russia has been targeting the city.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused the Russians of waging "total war," seeking to inflict as much death and destruction as possible on his country.

"Indeed, there has not been such a war on the European continent for 77 years," Mr Zelenskyy told Ukrainians on Monday.

The invasion began with expectations that Russia might overtake the country in a blitz lasting only days or a few weeks.

But stiff Ukrainian resistance has bogged down Moscow's troops, with the help of Western weapons.

The Kremlin is now focused on the eastern industrial heartland of the Donbas - where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces for eight years.

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The war had already claimed 14,000 lives before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 - and even after re-focusing their troops on taking Donbas, Moscow's troops have struggled to gain ground.

Russian forces have intensified efforts to encircle and capture Sievierodonetsk and neighbouring cities, the only part of the Donbas' Luhansk region that remains under Ukrainian government control, British military authorities said on Tuesday.

The UK defence ministry said that Russian forces have achieved "some localised successes" despite solid Ukrainian resistance.

A ministry spokesperson added: "If the Donbas front line moves further west, this will extend Russian lines of communication and likely see its forces face further logistic resupply difficulties."

Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the audience from Kyiv on a screen during the World Economic Forum. Credit: AP

On Tuesday, two top Russian officials acknowledged that Moscow's advance had been slower than expected - though they promised the offensive would achieve its goals.

Secretary of Russia's Security Council Nikolai Patrushev said that the Russian government "is not chasing deadlines."

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, meanwhile, told a meeting of a Russia-led security alliance of former Soviet states that Moscow is deliberately slowing down its offensive to allow residents of encircled cities to evacuate - even though forces have repeatedly hit civilian targets.

As Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, recovers from weeks of relentless bombardment, residents tailed back to receive rations of flour, pasta, and sugar this week.

Galina Kolembed, the aid distribution centre coordinator, told AP that more and more people are returning to the city after Russian forces withdrew to focus on the Donbas.

Kolembed said the centre provides food to more than 1,000 people every day - a figure that continues to grow.

"Many of them have small kids, and they spend their money on the kids, so they need some support with food," she said.

Meanwhile, Kirill Stremousov, a Russian-installed official in Ukraine's Kherson region, said the pro-Kremlin administration will ask Moscow to establish a military base there.

Stremousov has previously said the region would ask the Kremlin to make it part of Russia.