Russian strike killed 300 in Mariupol theater, Ukraine says
About 300 people were killed by the Russian airstrike last week that blasted open a Mariupol theater that was being used as a shelter, Ukrainian authorities said, marking what could be the war’s deadliest known attack on civilians yet, Associated Press reported.
The death toll announced Friday fueled allegations that Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, whether deliberately or by indiscriminate fire.
Russia, meanwhile, seemed to signal an important shift in its war objectives. US officials said Russian forces appear to have halted, at least for now, their ground offensive aimed at capturing the capital, Kyiv, and are concentrating more on gaining control of the Donbas region in the country’s southeast — a shift the Kremlin seemed to confirm.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again appealed to Russia to negotiate an end to the war, but pointedly said he would not give up any Ukrainian territory for the sake of peace, according to the Associated Press.
“The territorial integrity of Ukraine should be guaranteed,” he said in a nightly video address to the nation. “That is, the conditions must be fair, for the Ukrainian people will not accept them otherwise.”
For days, the Mariupol government was unable to give a casualty count for the March 16 bombardment of the grand, columned Mariupol Drama Theater, where hundreds of people were said to be taking cover. In an attempt to ward off such an attack, the word “CHILDREN” was printed in Russian in huge white letters on the ground outside.
The city government cited eyewitnesses when it announced the death toll on its Telegram channel. But it was not immediately clear how witnesses arrived at the figure or whether emergency workers had finished excavating the ruins.
US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the theater bombing was an “absolute shock, particularly given the fact that it was so clearly a civilian target.” He said it showed “a brazen disregard for the lives of innocent people” in the besieged port city, Associated Press reported.
The Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner said soon after the attack that more than 1,300 people had taken shelter in the theater, many of them because their homes were destroyed. The building had a basement bomb shelter, and some survivors did emerge from the rubble after the attack.
“This is a barbaric war, and according to international conventions, deliberate attacks on civilians are war crimes,” said Mircea Geoana, NATO’s deputy-secretary general.
He said Putin’s efforts to break Ukraine’s will to resist are having the opposite effect: “What he’s getting in response is an even more determined Ukrainian army and an ever more united West in supporting Ukraine.”
Ukrainian officials continued to push for more military support. Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, on Friday called for a lend-lease program, referring to US policy of heavily supplying its World War II allies.
Ukraine needs real-time military intelligence and heavy weapons, Yermak said in an address.
While the Russians continue to pound the capital from the air, they appear to have gone into a “defensive crouch” outside Kyiv and are focused more on the Donbas, a senior US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment, according to the Associated Press.
“They don’t show any signs of being willing to move on Kyiv from the ground,” the official said.