Ukraine says 300 died when Russia bombed theaters in Mariupol; Hunger grips cities

Kyiv, Ukraine — About 300 people were killed in last week’s Russian airstrike on a Mariupol theater used as a shelter, Ukrainian authorities said on Friday, making it the war’s deadliest known attack on civilians so far.

Meanwhile, Russian forces appear to have halted their ground offensive to capture the capital Kyiv, at least for now, and are more focused on fighting for control of the Donbass region in the country’s southeast, a senior US defense official said.

“They are showing no signs of being ready to strike Kyiv from the ground,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe an internal US military assessment of the war.

Likewise, the Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff, Colonel-Gen. Sergei Rudskoy said that “the main objectives of the first phase of the operation were generally achieved,” allowing Russian forces to focus on “the main goal, the liberation of Donbass.”

That could signal an important limitation of Moscow’s military objectives. Donbass is the largely Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 and where many Moscow residents have pledged their support.

In Mariupol, in turn, the bloodshed in the theater has fueled accusations that Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, whether intentionally or by indiscriminate fire, with a NATO official saying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war was “unprovoked, illogical and too barbaric”.

For days, the government in the besieged and devastated port city was unable to provide a casualty figure for the March 16 bombing of the large Mariupol Drama Theater, where hundreds of people are said to have run for cover, the word “CHILDREN” printed in Russian in huge white letters on the ground outside to ward off air raids.

When announcing the death toll on its Telegram channel on Friday, the city government quoted eyewitnesses. However, it was not immediately clear how witnesses got to the figure or if rescue workers had finished excavating the ruins.

US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Friday the bombing of the theater came as an “absolute shock, especially given that it was so clearly a civilian target.” He said it showed “an outrageous disregard for the lives of innocent people”.

The extent of the devastation in Mariupol, where bodies were left unburied between bomb craters and hollowed-out buildings, has 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 theater, many of them because their homes had been destroyed. The building had an air raid shelter in the basement, and some survivors emerged from the rubble after the attack.

“This is a barbaric war and under international conventions, premeditated attacks on civilians are war crimes,” said Mircea Geoana, NATO 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 even more united West in supporting Ukraine.”

On Thursday, Biden and allied leaders pledged that more military aid to Ukraine is on the way. But NATO has rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s urgent pleas to supply fighter jets or establish a no-fly zone over his country, fearing a war with Russia.

The US and European Union on Friday announced a move to further squeeze Russia economically: a partnership to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and dry up the billions of dollars the Kremlin is making by selling fuel receives.

Moscow is reluctant to accept the ever-tightening noose of sanctions around the Russian economy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Western pressure was tantamount to “all-out war”.

“And the goals are not hidden,” he said. “They are publicly declared – to destroy, break, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy and Russia as a whole.”

The Russian military said 1,351 of its soldiers died in Ukraine and 3,825 were injured, although it was not immediately clear whether these were also pro-Moscow separatists fighting in the east, or others not affiliated with the Defense Ministry, such as the National Guard . Earlier this week, NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers were killed in four weeks of fighting.

Britain’s MoD said Ukrainian forces counterattacked and were able to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometers (22 miles) east of Kyiv, while Russian troops resorted to their overstretched supply lines. In the south, logistical problems and Ukrainian resistance are slowing Russians on their way west to the port of Odessa, the ministry said.

As the Russians continue to bomb the capital from the air, outside of Kyiv they appear to have settled into a “defensive crouch” and are more focused on the Donbass, the senior US defense official said.

But the misery of civilians is getting worse in Ukrainian cities, which are increasingly resembling the ruins left behind by Russian forces’ campaigns in Syria and Chechnya.

In the village of Yasnohorodka, some 50 kilometers west of Kyiv, Russian troops who were there earlier in the week appeared to have been driven out as part of a counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces.

The tower of the village church was damaged by an explosion and the houses at the main crossing were in ruins. Loud explosions and shots could be heard.

“You can see for yourself what happened here. People have been killed here. Our soldiers were killed here.

Tens of thousands of people have left Mariupol in the past week, most of them driving private cars through dozens of Russian checkpoints.

“Unfortunately, nothing is left of Mariupol,” said Evgeniy Sokyrko, who was waiting for an evacuation train in Zaporizhia, the closest city center to Mariupol and a transit station for refugees. “In the last week there have been explosions like I’ve never heard before.”

Oksana Abramova, 42, said she mourned for those left behind in the city who were cut off from communications by shelling from cellphone, radio and television towers and have no means of escape.

“I think about how they are, where they are, all the time. Are they still hiding, are they alive? Or maybe they’re not there anymore,” she said.

In Kyiv, the ashes of the dead are piling up in the capital’s main crematorium because so many relatives have left and urns have not been collected. And the northern city of Chernihiv is all but cut off.

Chernihiv lost its main road bridge over the Desna River to a Russian airstrike this week. Subsequent bombing then damaged a footbridge and left the remaining residents stranded in the town without electricity, water or heat, authorities said. More than half of Chernihiv’s pre-war population of 285,000 is said to have fled.

For other developments:

-Russia said it will offer safe passage to 67 ships from 15 countries stuck in Ukrainian ports over the threat of shelling and mines from Friday.

– The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was told by Ukrainian authorities that Russian shelling is preventing workers from moving in and out of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, requiring constant monitoring of its spent fuel.

– Russia’s military claimed it destroyed a huge Ukrainian fuel base used to supply supplies to defend the Kyiv region, with ships firing a volley of cruise missiles, according to the Interfax news agency. Videos on social media showed a huge ball of fire near the capital.

For those in need – the elderly, children and others unable to join millions heading west – food shortages are mounting in a country once known as the breadbasket of the world.

In relentlessly shelled Kharkiv, hundreds of panicked people took refuge in the subway and in the emergency room of a hospital full of wounded soldiers and civilians.

Mostly elderly women lined up stoically to collect food and other urgent supplies this week as explosions thundered in the distance. A young girl fidgeted expectantly, watching as a volunteer’s knife sliced ​​through a giant cheese board, slicing out thick slices, one for each hungry person.

Hanna Spitsyna took over the distribution of food deliveries from the Ukrainian Red Cross. Those waiting were each given a chunk of cheese, which was thrown into plastic bags that people in line held open.

“Among those who stayed, there are people who can walk alone, but also many who cannot walk, elderly people,” said Hanna. “All these people need diapers, swaddle blankets and food.”

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Ukraine says 300 died when Russia bombed theaters in Mariupol; Hunger grips cities

Dais Johnston

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