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Russia-Ukraine war latest: U.S., U.K. probing reports of chemical weapons

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Nearly seven weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the onslaught could be entering a “new stage of terror,” as the Pentagon revealed it is closely monitoring reports of a possible chemical weapon attack on the besieged port city of Mariupol.

Investigation of chemical weapons

Two women carry bags through a street littered with rubble amid destroyed buildings.
Residents in the city of Mariupol carry their belongings on Sunday near buildings destroyed in the course of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

The Pentagon said it is closely monitoring reports of a possible chemical weapon attack on Mariupol. John Kirby, the Defense Department press secretary, said on Monday that officials were aware of “social media reports which claim Russian forces deployed a potential chemical munition,” but that they were yet to be confirmed. “These reports, if true, are deeply concerning and reflective of concerns that we have had about Russia’s potential to use a variety of riot control agents, including tear gas mixed with chemical agents, in Ukraine,” Kirby said.

The British government also said it was investigating the reports after pro-Kremlin forces threatened they would “smoke out” soldiers in Mariupol. “Any use of such weapons would be a callous escalation in this conflict and we will hold [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his regime to account,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss wrote on Twitter. “We are working urgently with partners to verify details.”

Possibility of phosphorous munitions

Two service members on a tank, looking out above the turret.
Service members of pro-Russian troops drive a tank outside Mariupol on Sunday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Ukraine joined its allies in checking the reports of chemical weapon use by Russian forces. Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said on Tuesday that the country is still verifying the information. "There is a theory that these could be phosphorous munitions," Malyar said in a televised address.

Phosphorus is a chemical that ignites when it comes into contact with oxygen. According to the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, the substance has several uses on a battlefield: for signaling, for creating a smokescreen or to be used as an incendiary weapon.

Due to the explosive nature of the chemical, its use during war is supposed to be tightly regulated. However, it is not banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention. “No matter how white phosphorus is used, it poses a high risk of horrific and long-lasting harm in crowded cities like Raqqa and Mosul and any other areas with concentrations of civilians,” Steve Goose, the arms director of Human Rights Watch, said about its alleged use in Syria in 2017.

10,000 reported dead in Mariupol

Grave marker with cross, picture and flowers on a dirt mound near large apartment buildings.
Graves of civilians killed during the Ukraine-Russia conflict, in Mariupol on Sunday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

The mayor of Mariupol said on Monday that more than 10,000 civilians have been killed since Russian forces surrounded the besieged city. Vadym Boychenko said corpses of locals were “carpeted through the streets” and estimated that the death toll could soon reach 20,000. Boychenko also accused Russian soldiers of purposely blocking humanitarian convoys from bringing much-needed supplies such as medicine and food.

‘New stage of terror’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks from Kyiv by video on Monday. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky voiced concerns that Russian forces are preparing for a “new stage of terror” that could involve the use of chemical weapons. “Today, the occupiers issued a new statement, which testifies to their preparation for a new stage of terror against Ukraine and our defenders,” Zelensky said. “One of the mouthpieces of the occupiers stated that they could use chemical weapons against the defenders of Mariupol. We take this as seriously as possible.”

Putin’s face-to-face meeting

Austria's Chancellor Karl Nehammer gestures while speaking into microphones.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer at a news conference after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said he urged Putin to end the war in Ukraine after a face-to-face meeting with him on Monday. Nehammer is the first European leader to have met with the Russian president in person since the war began in February. Following the meeting, the chancellor said he had no “optimistic impression” from the conversation and that “the offensive is obviously being massively prepared, but therefore also the clear commitment that stable access of the International Red Cross is needed."

Putin claims Russia has ‘noble’ objectives

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin stand behind him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, and Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia on Tuesday. (Yevgeny Biyatov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Putin on Tuesday justified the invasion of Ukraine, saying he had made the “right decision” and that Moscow will achieve its “noble” objectives. Speaking at an awards ceremony at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Putin was quoted by state media as saying he had no choice but to launch attacks against Ukraine in a bid to protect Russia. He told the crowd the objective of the operation was to save the people in the Donbas region, a separatist area in the east that has been backed by Russia since 2014. “On the one hand, we are helping and saving people, and on the other, we are simply taking measures to ensure the security of Russia itself,” Putin said. “It’s clear that we didn’t have a choice. It was the right decision.”

Elsewhere in his speech, Putin warned the West that attempts to isolate Russia would fail and Moscow will never depend on those countries again following the imposition of crippling sanctions. “The sanctions were total, the isolation was complete but the Soviet Union was still first in space,” Putin said, citing the success of the Soviet space program during the Cold War. “We don’t intend to be isolated. It is impossible to severely isolate anyone in the modern world — especially such a vast country as Russia.”

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What happened this past week in Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.