Possible mass graves near Mariupol

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New satellite images show apparent mass graves near Mariupol, where local officials have accused Russia of burying up to 9000 Ukrainian civilians to conceal the slaughter taking place in the ruined port city.

The images emerged just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday claimed victory in the battle for Mariupol, despite the presence of an estimated 2000 Ukrainian fighters who remain holed up at a giant steelworks.

Putin ordered his troops to seal off the stronghold "so that not even a fly comes through" rather than storming it.

Putin's decision to blockade the Azovstal plant probably indicates a desire to contain Ukrainian resistance in the strategic city, and free up Russian forces to be deployed elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, Britain's defence ministry said in an assessment on Friday.

Satellite image provider Maxar Technologies released the photos, which it said showed more than 200 mass graves in a town where Ukrainian officials say the Russians have been burying Mariupol residents killed in the fighting.

The imagery appeared to show long rows of graves stretching away from an existing cemetery.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko accused the Russians of "hiding their military crimes" by taking the bodies of civilians from the city and burying them in nearby Manhush.

The graves could hold as many as 9000 dead, the Mariupol City Council said on Thursday in a post on the Telegram messaging app.

Boychenko labeled Russian actions in the city as "the new Babi Yar", a reference to the site of multiple Nazi massacres in which nearly 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed in 1941.

"The bodies of the dead were being brought by the truckload and actually simply being dumped in mounds," an aide to Boychenko, Piotr Andryushchenko, said on Telegram.

There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin.

When mass graves and hundreds of dead civilians were discovered in Bucha and other towns around Kyiv after Russian troops retreated three weeks ago, Russian officials accused Ukraine of staging the atrocities.

In a statement, Maxar said a review of previous images suggests the graves in Manhush were dug in late March and expanded in recent weeks.

A few thousand Ukrainian troops, by Moscow's estimate, have held out for weeks at the Mariupol steel plant, despite a battering from Russian forces and repeated demands for their surrender.

About 1000 civilians were also trapped there, according to Ukrainian officials.

At least two Russian attacks on Thursday hit the city of Zaporizhzhia, a way-station for people fleeing Mariupol. No one was injured, the regional governor said.

The Red Cross said it had expected to evacuate 1500 people by bus, but the Russians allowed only a few dozen to leave and pulled some people off the buses.

More than 100,000 people were believed trapped with little or no food, water, heat or medicine in Mariupol, which had a prewar population of about 430,000.

More than 20,000 people have been killed in the siege, according to Ukrainian authorities.

Boychenko rejected any notion Mariupol had fallen into Russian hands.

"The city was, is and remains Ukrainian," he said. "Today our brave warriors, our heroes, are defending our city."

The capture of Mariupol would represent the Kremlin's biggest victory yet of the war in Ukraine.

It would help Moscow secure more of the coastline, complete a land bridge between Russia and the Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014, and free up forces to join the larger battle now underway for Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, the Donbas.

Russian officials have for weeks said capturing the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas is the war's main objective.

At a joint appearance with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Putin said, "The completion of combat work to liberate Mariupol is a success".

Shoigu predicted the Azovstal steel mill could be taken in three to four days but Putin said that would be "pointless".

Instead, the Russian leader said the military should "block off this industrial area so that not even a fly comes through".

The plant covers 11 square kilometres and is threaded with some 24km of tunnels.

US President Joe Biden pledged an additional $US1.3 billion ($A1.8 billion) for new weapons and economic assistance for Ukraine.

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