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Russian invaders in Ukraine leave a maternity hospital in ruins

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Overnight, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned a Russian strike on a maternity and children's hospital in the southern port city of Mariupol. He called it a war crime and attempted genocide. There are some horrific images coming out of that incident. The White House called the hospital attack barbaric. NPR's Eric Westervelt is in western Ukraine with me and brings us the story.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Well, you're right. There are truly some brutal and, frankly, difficult to watch videos and photos coming out of this. Pregnant women, you know, being wounded and being carried by stretchers across, really, this devastated landscape. There are several enormous bomb craters. Some look to be two stories deep. There are fears...

FADEL: Wow.

WESTERVELT: ...You know, people could be buried in the dirt and rubble, including some children. The surrounding buildings, you know, are burning and partially crumbling. There are burnt, you know, sort of matchstick-like stalks where trees once stood. It's just devastating. And inside the hospital - or, really, what's left of it, I should say - you can see in the videos and photos, you know, bloody mattresses, blood on the floors, on changing tables. It's just awful, awful to see. In all, the Ukrainian government says, at least three people, including a child, were killed. At least 17 others were wounded, including some pregnant women. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke about it overnight. He switched to Russian, importantly. And he seemed to be speaking directly to the Russian people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) What kind of country is this? How can the Russian Federation be afraid of a children's hospital, of a building of mothers, and then destroys that?

WESTERVELT: The president also urged the West to impose even tougher economic sanctions. And he again asked for a no-fly zone. But that idea has been soundly rejected by NATO, which says that could easily widen this war.

FADEL: So despite what you describe, despite these images, Russia again denied targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. The Kremlin called the hospital attack report fake news and said the area had long ago been taken over by Ukrainian military troops.

WESTERVELT: Right. The Ukrainian government says, look; the idea that this was a fighting position and a military post is simply absurd. You know, in recent days, a blood collection center and a large regular hospital there were also hit by the Russians. And big civilian targets have been regularly hit and shelled in many other cities in the east.

FADEL: Eric, we're two weeks into Russia's invasion. And Mariupol is one of several cities under an intense siege. Citizens, for days, have been trying to evacuate out. What more do we know about the situation today?

WESTERVELT: Well, we've talked to some local residents there. I mean, they continue to paint, you know, an increasingly dire picture, you know - no water or electricity or fuel, food running low. Some people are, you know, melting snow for drinking water. And this morning, there are also some ghastly images of residents on the outskirts of Mariupol wrapping dead bodies in these plastic bags. They looks sort of like big, black contractor bags.

FADEL: Oh, yeah. I saw those.

WESTERVELT: They're also wrapping dead bodies in carpets and dumping them into newly dug trenches. These are, effectively, mass graves, you know? It's just not safe for people to do any kind of proper burial. So locals are seen wearing gloves and masks and crouching, you know, as they do this because of the risk of Russian fire. And the government says about 1,200 civilians have died in this 10-day siege there.

FADEL: And people want to get out. And again today, Ukraine will try to open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee. As we've seen, though, those corridors end up getting shelled. What's the latest on those?

WESTERVELT: Yeah. Briefly, most days, these corridors have failed. They're going to try again today. Some citizens have gotten out, including in the city of Sumy in the northeast. And we'll see how it goes today.

FADEL: NPR's Eric Westervelt in western Ukraine. Thank you for your time.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.