Ukraine on Thursday accused Russia of bombing a theater that housed more than 1,000 civilians in the city of Mariupol, after US President Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal”.
The latest attacks on civilians across Ukraine came as President Volodymyr Zelensky made a burning plea for help to the United States, which responded by pledging $1 billion in new weapons to fight the Russian invading army.
Officials across Ukraine are struggling to count the dead civilians – with authorities saying 103 children have been killed since the invasion began – who have been targeted in homes, hospitals, ambulances and queues. waiting for food.
In the port city of Mariupol – where more than 2,000 people have died so far – a Russian bomb hit the drama theatre, which city council officials said housed more than 1,000 people.
“The only word to describe what happened today is genocide, genocide of our nation, of our Ukrainian people,” city mayor Vadim Boychenko said in a video message on Telegram.
“We find it hard to understand all this, we refuse to believe it, we want to close our eyes and forget the nightmare that happened today,” he said.
Satellite images of the theater on March 14 shared by the private satellite company Maxar showed the words “children” clearly carved into the ground in Russian on either side of the building.
Officials released a photo of the building, the central part of which was completely destroyed, with thick white smoke rising from the rubble after they said a bomb had been dropped from a plane.
“It is impossible to find words to describe the level of cynicism and cruelty with which Russian invaders are destroying the peaceful residents of a Ukrainian seaside town,” an official statement read.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied targeting the theater, saying instead that the building was mined and blown up by members of Ukraine’s far-right Azov Battalion.
So far, the destruction that has marked other cities has been halted outside the capital kyiv, which has been emptied of around half of its 3.5 million people.
But dull booms echoed through the capital’s deserted streets on Wednesday, with only the occasional vehicle passing through sandbagged checkpoints, and very few permits granted to break its latest curfew.
In a speech to the US Congress, Zelensky invoked Pearl Harbor, the September 11 attacks and Martin Luther King Jr. as he showed lawmakers a video of the harrowing effect of three weeks of Russian attacks.
Zelensky, dressed in military green, demanded that Washington and its NATO allies impose a no-fly zone, so that “Russia cannot terrorize our free cities”.
Switching to English, Zelensky addressed Biden directly saying, “I wish you to be the leader of the world. To be the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
Biden and NATO have resisted Zelensky’s calls for direct involvement against nuclear-armed Russia, warning it could lead to World War III – although the Ukrainian leader told NBC that “may already be start”.
But on Wednesday, Biden announced that the latest US aid package for Ukraine was $1 billion and that the United States would help the former Soviet state acquire longer-range anti-aircraft weapons.
The US president also stepped up his condemnation of the Russian leader, calling him a “war criminal”.
The Kremlin called the comment “unacceptable and unforgivable from the head of a state whose bombs have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world.”
Britain’s diplomatic mission to the UN also tweeted that Russia is committing ‘war crimes and targeting civilians’ in Ukraine, after the UK government called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in that country.
“Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine is a threat to all of us,” he posted on Wednesday, saying the request was made with the United States, France, Albania, Norway and Ireland.
Putin, in a televised government meeting, insisted the invasion was “going along successfully”, adding “we will not allow Ukraine to serve as a springboard for aggressive actions against Russia”.
As his government steps up a crackdown that saw at least a dozen media websites blocked on Wednesday, Putin claimed the West was seeking to divide Russian society, railing against a ‘fifth column’ who was ‘mentally’ in the West .
“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from traitors and spit them out like a fly that has accidentally flown into their mouths,” he said.
He also condemned Western sanctions against his regime that pushed Russia close to defaulting on its external debts as an “economic blitzkrieg”.
“On the edge of the abyss”
As the civilian toll in Ukraine grew, the World Health Organization said health facilities and personnel were being attacked at an unprecedented rate.
“We have never seen in the world … this rate of attacks on health care,” WHO emergency director Michael Ryan told reporters, warning that “this crisis is reaching a point where the system healthcare in Ukraine is on the brink”.
The UN health agency has verified 43 attacks on health facilities, ambulances and health personnel in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, killing 12 people and injuring 34.
And the conflict has already driven more than 3 million Ukrainians across the border, many of them women and children, 103 of whom have been killed since the invasion began, authorities said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a “compromise” would center on Ukraine becoming a neutral state comparable to Sweden and Austria.
But Zelensky’s office shrugged off the idea – and many Ukrainians themselves remained defiant.
Retired tennis player Alexandr Dolgopolov returned to kyiv to take up arms and defend his hometown.
“Before it was racquets and strings, now it,” the 33-year-old wrote on Instagram alongside a photo of a gun, helmet and body armor.
The mayor of the southern Ukrainian town of Melitopol was released days after kyiv said he was abducted by Russian forces.
“Thank you for not abandoning me,” Ivan Fedorov told Zelensky, according to a video of their phone call posted on Telegram.
“I will need one or two days to recover and then I will be at your disposal to contribute to our victory.”