KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday denounced Russia’s bombardment of a school sheltering hundreds as an act of “terror”, while urging direct talks with his Russian counterpart as the only way to end the war.

This handout video grab taken and released by the Ukraine Presidency press service on March 6, 2022 shows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivering an address in Kyiv. UKRAINE PRESIDENCY / AFP

People remained “under the rubble” at the school in the besieged southern city of Mariupol, authorities said, in the latest attack on civilians to mark Russia’s more than three-week-old invasion of its eastern European neighbour.

The bombardment came as Moscow said it had again used a new-generation hypersonic missile and as China — under pressure to denounce its ally’s invasion — said it was not sending Russia weapons.

In his daily video message, Zelensky said the siege of Mariupol, a strategic port cut off by Russian forces from food, water and supplies, would go down as a war crime, describing it as “a terror that will be remembered even in the next century”.

“Russian forces have come to exterminate us, to kill us,” the president said.

Authorities in Turkey, where Russian and Ukrainian representatives have been negotiating, said the two sides were close to a deal to stop the fighting, amid reports of a mounting civilian death toll and of hundreds of Ukrainians being forcibly deported to Russia.

But Zelensky said that an ultimate solution to the brutal conflict would require direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Dialogue is the only way out,” he said on CNN on Sunday. “I think it’s just the two of us, me and Putin, who can make an agreement on this.”

Since Putin launched the war on February 24, it has sparked a refugee crisis of historic proportions, wreaked havoc on the global economy and drawn fierce denunciations from much of the world.

Russia’s ally China has walked a cautious line, calling for peace talks but refraining from denouncing Moscow.

China’s ambassador to the US on Sunday denied that his country was sending weapons to Russia for the war, days after US President Joe Biden warned Beijing not to do so.

“What China is doing is sending food, medicine, sleeping bags and baby formula, not weapons and ammunition,” Ambassador Qin Gang told CBS, while making no promises about the future.

Russian forces — stymied by unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance, and reportedly facing shortages of weapons and supplies — have made increasing use of long-range missiles, claiming twice in recent days to have fired a new-generation hypersonic missile.

Forcible deportation –

“Yesterday, the Russian occupiers dropped bombs on art school No 12” where 400 women, children and elderly people were sheltering, destroying the building, the Mariupol city council said on Telegram Sunday.

City authorities also claimed that more than 1,000 Mariupol residents had been forcibly taken to Russia.

“The occupiers are sending the residents of Mariupol to filtration camps, checking their phones and seizing (their) Ukrainian documents,” said Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional administration.

“I appeal to the international community: put pressure on Russia and its madman of a leader,” he said on Facebook.

A group of children stuck in a Mariupol clinic had been taken to Russian-controlled Donetsk, a carer and a relative of a clinic worker told AFP.

In the encircled northern city of Chernigiv, Mayor Vladislav Atroshenko said on television Sunday that dozens of civilians had been killed after shelling hit a hospital. The city was “suffering from an absolute humanitarian catastrophe”, he added.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis issued an urgent new plea to the world community “to make a real effort to stop this repugnant war”.

Hypersonic missiles –

Russia’s defence ministry said Sunday that Moscow had again fired its newest Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missile, destroying a fuel depot in the southern Mykolaiv region.

A day earlier, Russia said it had used the sophisticated weapon to destroy an underground arms depot near Ukraine’s border with NATO member Romania.

The Pentagon, however, played down the claim. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Moscow was trying to reclaim war momentum and that the weapon was not a “game changer”.

In Kyiv, where Russian forces are trying to encircle the capital, a shell exploded outside a ten-storey apartment block, injuring five people.

Humanitarian conditions continued to deteriorate in the mostly Russian-speaking south and east, where Russian forces have been pressing their advance, as well as in the north around Kyiv.

– ‘Stalingrad, Grozny, Aleppo’ –

The port of Mariupol has been one of the worst-hit cities. Its capture would link the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, with the separatist eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, which broke away that year and are controlled by Moscow-backed rebels.

Thousands of civilians are thought to be trapped inside the city without water, electricity or gas. Russia said Saturday it had broken through the city’s defences and its troops were inside.

Last Wednesday, a theatre where more than 1,000 people had sheltered was hit, with hundreds still presumed missing in the rubble.

A Greek diplomat who remained in Mariupol during the bombardment said Sunday the destruction there would rank alongside the world’s most devastating wartime assaults.

“Mariupol will be included in a list of cities in the world that were completely destroyed by the war, such as Guernica, Stalingrad, Grozny, Aleppo,” Manolis Androulakis, told reporters after flying back to Athens.

Mariupol resident Tamara Kavunenko, 58, said the city’s streets were “full with the bodies of civilians”.

In a video message, Zelensky said Russians should know that around 14,000 of their servicemen had been killed, a number that “will only continue to rise”.

Russia has provided no death toll since early March, when it said nearly 500 servicemen had been killed. Ukrainian officials said on March 12 that some 1,300 Ukrainian troops had died.

Ukraine has not been providing a civilian toll, except for children, saying at least 115 have now perished.

Aid agencies are struggling to reach people trapped in besieged cities, where the UN says the situation is “dire”.

Around 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, roughly two-thirds staying within the country and one-third going abroad, the UN refugee agency said.

Turkey, with strong ties to both Russia and Ukraine, said the two sides were making progress in talks.

“We see that the parties are close to an agreement,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Sunday.

In an interview with daily Hurriyet, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the sides were negotiating Ukraine’s neutrality, disarmament and security guarantees, so-called “de-Nazification”, and the status of the Russian language, the breakaway Donbas region and annexed Crimea.

But Zelensky, in his CNN interview, appeared to draw some red lines.

“You cannot just demand from Ukraine to recognise some territories as independent republics,” he said. “We have to come up with a model where Ukraine will not lose its sovereignty.”

– Lasting economic effects –

Russia’s war has sparked an unprecedented wave of Western sanctions against Putin, his entourage and Russian companies.

Western businesses have either pulled out or halted operations in Russia, the assets of Russia’s Central Bank held abroad have been frozen and many Russian banks have been cut off from the SWIFT system that enables inter-bank transactions.

France said Sunday it had seized 850 million euros ($920 million) of Russian oligarchs’ assets on its soil.

The war has sparked turmoil for an already vulnerable world economy.

Russia is a major exporter of oil, gas and commodities, while Ukraine is a major supplier of wheat.

Commodity prices have rocketed, further fuelling high inflation, the chief economist with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development told AFP.

“Even if the war stopped today, the consequences of this conflict would be felt for months to come,” Beata Javorcik said.