Russian troops intensified their campaign to take the port city of Mariupol on Tuesday as part of an anticipated massive onslaught across eastern Ukraine that the United States warned might include the use of chemical weapons.
Moscow is believed to be trying to connect occupied Crimea with Russian-backed separatist territories Donetsk and Lugansk in Donbas, and has laid siege to the strategically located city, once home to more than 400,000 people.
Reports emerged on Monday from Ukraine s Azov battalion that a Russian drone had dropped a “poisonous substance” in the area, with people experiencing respiratory failure and neurological problems.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was unable to confirm the allegations, but that Washington had “credible information” Russia might use tear gas mixed with chemical agents in the besieged port.
The United States sounded the alarm as civilians were struggling to flee, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky condemning alleged mass rapes in areas previously occupied by Russian troops.
The last time chemical weapons were unleashed during a conflict was in Syria where a civil war erupted in 2011 as rebels sought to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
The world s chemical weapons watchdog said it was “concerned” by the unconfirmed reports coming from Mariupol, and was “monitoring closely.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the use of such weapons by Moscow would “elicit a response not just from the United States, but from the international community,” without elaborating.
“We have had justified reason to be concerned… that this could be a tactic they might employ, which is to try to mask a potential more serious chemical attack with the riot control agents,” he told reporters.
As the fighting dragged toward its seventh week, the Ukrainian army fought desperately to defend Mariupol against the Russian offensive.