KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — About 300 people were killed in last week’s Russian airstrike on a theater in Mariupol that served as a shelter, Ukrainian authorities said Friday in what would make it the deadliest attack ever. known from the war against civilians to this day.
The bloodshed in theater has fueled allegations that Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, whether deliberately or through indiscriminate shooting.
Meanwhile, in what could signal a significant tightening of Moscow’s war aims, the United States said Russian forces appeared to have halted, at least for now, their ground offensive aimed at capturing the capital, kyiv, and focused more on taking over Donbass. southeastern region of the 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 clear that Ukraine would not agree to cede any part of its 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 bombing of the Mariupol Great Column Drama Theater, where hundreds of people were said to have taken shelter, the word “CHILDREN “printed in Russian in large white letters. on the ground outside to ward off an air attack.
In announcing the death toll on its Telegram channel on Friday, the city government cited eyewitnesses. But it was not immediately clear how witnesses got to the figure or whether rescuers had finished digging out the ruins.
US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the theater bombing was “an absolute shock, especially since 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 to support Ukraine”.
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 Lugansk are recognized by Russia as independent.
The British Ministry of Defense said Ukrainian forces counter-attacked 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 who were there 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.
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 outbursts like me. I’ve never heard of it before.
Oksana Abramova, 42, said she suffered for those left behind in the city, who were cut off from communication with the bombardment of cellphone, radio and TV towers and cannot afford to s ‘escape.
“I think all the time about how they are, where they are. Are they still hiding, are they alive? Or maybe they’re gone,” she said.
In kyiv, the ashes of the dead are piling up at the main crematorium because so many loved ones 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 heading 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 subway and in 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.
“Among those who remained there are people who can walk on their own, but many cannot walk, elderly people,” said Hanna Spitsyna. “All these people need diapers, swaddling blankets and food.”
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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