The key Ukrainian port city of Mariupol was “near to a humanitarian catastrophe” on Wednesday after more than 15 hours of continuous bombardment by Russian forces, the city’s deputy mayor told the BBC.

“The Russian army is working through all their weapons here – artillery, multiple rocket launch systems, airplanes, tactical rockets. They are trying to destroy the city,” Serhiy Orlov said.

Mr Orlov said Russian forces were several kilometres from the city on all sides and had launched strikes on key infrastructure, cutting water and power supplies to parts of the city. One densely populated residential district on the city’s left bank had been “nearly totally destroyed”, he said.

“We cannot count the number of victims there, but we believe at least hundreds of people are dead. We cannot go in to retrieve the bodies. My father lives there, I cannot reach him, I don’t know if he is alive or dead.”

Russian forces had targeted strikes against pump stations and electrical transformers, Mr Orlov said, and there were food shortages in parts of the city – raising fears of an approaching humanitarian crisis.

Mariupol is a key strategic target for Russia because seizing it would allow Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine to join forces with troops in Crimea, the southern peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014. Ukraine’s army has resisted Russian forces so far in key parts of the country but the increased aerial bombardment of cities has raised fears Russia is shifting tactics.

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“The Ukrainian army is very brave and they will continue to defend the city but the style of the Russian army is like pirates – they do not fight with their army, they just destroy entire districts,” Mr Orlov said.

“We believe in our Ukrainian army, but we are in a terrible situation.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine took a heavy toll on civilians on Wednesday as residential neighbourhoods in several large cities were bombed. Ukraine’s emergency services said more than 2,000 civilians had been killed so far during the Russian invasion, though the BBC was not able to independently verify the figure. The UN said on Tuesday that at least 136 civilians have been killed, thought it estimates that the actual number was higher.

There were fears on Wednesday of worsening death tolls as Russian troops appeared to surround the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and the port city of Kherson.

Ukrainian forces said Russian paratroopers had landed near Kharkiv on Wednesday, leading to street fighting on the outskirts of the city. Local officials said a cruise missile hit a city council meeting, blowing off the top of the building and wounding three. At least 18 people have been reported killed in the city in the past day.

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