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 the number of casualties from the March 16 attack. 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, either deliberately or through indiscriminate shooting. And that could increase pressure on NATO to step up 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 bodies were left unburied amid bomb craters and hollowed out buildings, made information difficult to come by.
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 death toll came a day after Biden and allied leaders promised more military aid for Ukraine was 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 to further tighten 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 fuel.
Moscow is bristling at the tightening of sanctions around the Russian economy, and President Vladimir Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has called the 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.”
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 number included pro-Moscow separatist forces or others not part of it. of the Department of Defense, such as the National Guard. Earlier this week, NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian troops had been killed in four weeks of fighting.
In Ukrainian towns, which day by day look more and more like the ruins that Russian forces have left in their campaigns in Syria and Chechnya, the misery of civilians is becoming more and more acute.
In the village of Yasnohorodka, about 50 kilometers west of the capital, Russian troops who were in the village earlier in the week appear to have been pushed back as part of a counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces.
The village church tower was damaged by an explosion and the houses at the main crossroads are in ruins. Loud explosions and bursts of gunfire could be heard.
“You can see for yourself what happened here. People were killed here. Our soldiers were killed here. There was fighting,” said Yasnohorodka resident Valeriy Puzakov.
Tens of thousands of people left Mariupol last week, most of them traveling by private car through dozens of Russian checkpoints.
“Unfortunately, nothing is left of Mariupol,” said Evgeniy Sokyrko, who was among those waiting for an evacuation train in Zaporizhzhia, the nearest urban center to Mariupol and a bus station for refugees. “Last week there were explosions like I’ve never heard 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.
“A lot of people don’t have a connection yet. I think all the time about how they are, where they are. Are they still hiding, are they alive? Or maybe they’re not there anymore” , she said.
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 Ukrainian authorities told it Russian bombing was preventing worker rotations 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 world’s breadbasket.
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 cannot walk, elderly people,” Hanna said. “All these people need nappies, nappies and food.”
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