About 300 people were killed in the Russian airstrike last week that opened up a theater in Mariupol, Ukrainian authorities said on Friday, making it the war’s deadliest known attack on civilians to date. .
In a vain attempt to protect the hundreds of people hiding inside the theatre, “CHILDREN” in Russian had been printed in huge white letters on the floor in two places outside the tall columned building to make it visible from the air.
For days the government of the beleaguered and crumbling city of Mariupol was unable to give a casualty count for the attack of March 16. Announcing the death toll on his Telegram channel on Friday, he cited eyewitnesses. But it was not immediately clear whether rescuers had finished excavating the ruins of the Mariupol Drama Theater or how witnesses arrived at the figure.
Yet the emerging picture will certainly fuel allegations that Moscow committed war crimes by killing civilians, whether deliberately or through indiscriminate shooting. And that could increase pressure on NATO to step up its military aid. The alliance has so far refused to provide fighter jets or establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine for fear of going to war with Russia.
US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Friday that the reaction to the theater bombing was “nothing but absolute shock, especially since it was so clearly a ‘a civilian target’. He said it showed “a shameless disregard for the lives of innocent people”.
The scale of the devastation in Mariupol, where the bodies were not buried amidst bomb craters and hollowed-out buildings, made information difficult to obtain.
But shortly after the attack, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner said more than 1,300 people had taken refuge in the theatre, many of them because their homes had been destroyed. The building had a bomb shelter in the basement and some survivors emerged from the rubble after the attack.
The reported death toll came a day after Biden and allied leaders promised that more military aid for Ukraine is on the way. But they failed to provide some of the heavy weapons that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said were urgently needed. Zelenskky advocated for no-fly planes, tanks and patrols over Ukraine.
The United States and the European Union announced a decision on Friday aimed at further compressing Russia economically: a partnership to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and dry up the billions of dollars the Kremlin makes from the sale of fuel.
Moscow is bristling at the tightening of sanctions around the Russian economy, and President Vladimir Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has called Western pressure “a real hybrid war, an all-out war”.
“And the goals are not hidden,” he continued. “They are publicly declared – to destroy, break, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy and Russia as a whole.”
In Ukrainian cities that look more and more every day like the ruins that Russian forces left in their campaigns in Syria and Chechnya, the misery of civilians is becoming more and more acute.
In the capital, kyiv, the ashes of the dead are piling up at the main crematorium because so many loved ones have left, leaving urns unclaimed. The besieged northern city of Chernihiv is now virtually isolated.
Chernihiv first lost its main road bridge over the Desna River to a Russian airstrike this week. Subsequent shelling damaged a pedestrian bridge, trapping remaining residents inside the town without power, water and heat, authorities said. It is believed that more than half of Chernihiv’s 285,000 pre-war inhabitants fled.
In other developments:
— Russia said it would offer safe passage from Friday to 67 ships from 15 foreign countries that are stuck in Ukrainian ports due to the danger of shelling and mines.
— The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was told by Ukrainian authorities that Russian bombing was preventing the rotation of workers in and out of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
– The Russian military claimed to have destroyed a huge Ukrainian fuel base used to supply defenses in the kyiv region, with ships firing a salvo of cruise missiles, according to the Interfax news agency. Videos on social media showed a huge ball of fire near the capital.
For the vulnerable – the elderly, children and others unable to join the millions heading west – food shortages are looming in a country once known as the breadbasket of the world.
In relentlessly bombarded Kharkiv, mostly elderly women lined stoically to collect food and other urgent supplies this week as explosions sounded in the distance. Shaking in anticipation, a young girl watched as a volunteer’s knife cut through a giant slice of cheese, carving out thick slices, one for each hungry person.
Hanna Spitsyna was responsible for distributing the delivery of food aid from the Ukrainian Red Cross. Those waiting each received a piece of cheese, placed in plastic bags that people in line held open.
“Among those who stayed, there are people who can walk on their own, but many who cannot walk, elderly people,” Hanna said. “All these people need nappies, nappies and food.”
—Nebi Qena and Andrea Rosa, Associated Press