KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — About 300 people were killed by the Russian airstrike last week that opened up a theater in Mariupol that served as a shelter, Ukrainian authorities said, marking what may be the most attack known murderer of the war against civilians to this day.
The death toll announced on Friday fueled allegations that Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, whether deliberately or through indiscriminate shooting.
Russia, meanwhile, seemed to signal a significant shift in its war aims. US officials said Russian forces appeared to have halted, at least for the time being, their ground offensive aimed at capturing the capital, Kyiv, and were focusing more on taking control of the Donbass region in the southeast of the country. country – a change the Kremlin seemed to confirm.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky again called on Russia to negotiate an end to the war, but made it clear that he would not give up any Ukrainian territory in the name of peace.
“The territorial integrity of Ukraine must be guaranteed,” he said in an overnight video address to the nation. “That is to say, the conditions must be fair, because the Ukrainian people will not accept them otherwise.”
For days, the Mariupol government was unable to count the casualties of the March 16 bombardment of the Mariupol Grand Drama Theater, where hundreds of people are believed to have been hiding. In an attempt to ward off such an attack, the word “CHILDREN” was printed in Russian in large white letters on the ground outside.
The city government cited eyewitnesses when announcing the death toll on its Telegram channel. But it was not immediately clear how witnesses got to the figure or whether rescuers had finished excavating the ruins.
US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the theater bombing was an “absolute shock, especially considering it was so clearly a civilian target”. He said it showed “a brazen disregard for the lives of innocent people” in the beleaguered port city.
The Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner said soon after the attack that 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.
“This is a barbaric war, and according to international conventions, deliberate attacks against civilians are war crimes,” said Mircea Geoana, NATO’s deputy secretary general.
He said Putin’s efforts to smash Ukraine’s will to resist are having the opposite effect: “What he gets in response is an even more determined Ukrainian military and an ever more united West in support. Ukraine”.
Ukrainian officials continued to press for increased military support. Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, on Friday called for a lend-lease program, referring to the US policy of massive procurement of its World War II allies.
Ukraine needs real-time military intelligence and heavy weapons, Yermak said in a speech.
As the Russians continue to bombard the capital from the air, they appear to have “hunkered down defensively” outside kyiv and focus more on Donbass, a senior US defense official said, speaking under on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment. .
“They show no signs of wanting to move into Kyiv from the ground,” the official said.
In comments that appeared to support a change in Moscow’s military objectives, Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi, Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff, said the main objective of the first stage of the operation – to reduce the Ukraine’s combat capability – has “generally been achieved”. allowing the Russian forces to concentrate on “the main objective, the liberation of Donbass”.
Donbas is the largely Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 and where many residents want close ties with Moscow.
Its coal and industrial regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are recognized by Russia as independent. Mariupol is also in the Donbass, although outside the territories controlled by the separatists since 2014.
The British Ministry of Defense said Ukrainian forces counterattacked and were able to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometers (22 miles) east of kyiv as Russian troops retreated to their overextended supply lines. In the south, logistical problems and Ukrainian resistance are slowing the Russians as they seek to head west toward the port of Odessa, the ministry said.
In fact, the Russians no longer fully control Kherson, the first major city to fall to Moscow forces, the top US defense official said. The official said the southern city was contested by the Ukrainians in heavy fighting. The Kremlin has denied losing full control.
The Russian military said 1,351 of its soldiers died in Ukraine and 3,825 were injured, although it was not immediately clear whether that included separatists in the east or others not part of the Department of Defense, like the National Guard. Earlier this week, NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian troops had been killed in four weeks of fighting.
For civilians, the misery is deepening in Ukrainian cities, which look more and more like the ruins that Russian forces left during their campaigns in Syria and Chechnya.
In the village of Yasnohorodka, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of kyiv, Russian troops occupying it earlier in the week appeared to have been pushed back as part of a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.
The village church tower was damaged by an explosion and the houses at the main crossroads are in ruins.
“You can see for yourself what happened here. People have been killed here. Our soldiers were killed here,” said Yasnohorodka resident Valeriy Puzakov.
In kyiv, the ashes of the dead are piling up at the main crematorium because so many relatives have left, leaving urns unclaimed. And the northern city of Chernihiv is nearly cut off after Russian forces destroyed bridges, leaving people without electricity, water and heat, authorities said.
For the vulnerable – the elderly, children and others unable to join the millions fleeing west – food shortages are mounting in a country once known as the breadbasket of the world.
In relentlessly bombarded Kharkiv, hundreds of panicked people took refuge in the metro. A hospital emergency room filled with wounded soldiers and civilians.
Most of the elderly women lined up 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.
As for Mariupol, “nothing remains of Mariupol,” said Evgeniy Sokyrko, who was among those waiting for an evacuation train at Zaporizhzhia, a bus station for refugees from the destroyed port city. “Last week there were explosions like I’ve never heard before.”
Rosa reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Associated Press writer Robert Burns in Washington and journalists around the world contributed to this report.
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