KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian authorities said Friday that about 300 people died when a Russian airstrike last week blew up a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of civilians were sheltering — a catastrophic loss civilian lives this, if confirmed, is likely to further increase pressure on Western nations to step up military aid.
In a futile attempt to protect those inside from the missiles and airstrikes that Russia rained down on the cities, a huge sign reading “CHILDREN” in Russian had been posted outside the large theater at columns to make it visible from the air.
For days the government in the beleaguered ruins of Mariupol was unable to give a casualty figure for the March 16 attack. The message on his Telegram channel on Friday cited eyewitnesses, but it was not immediately clear whether rescuers had finished searching the ruins of the theater or how witnesses arrived at the horrific figure of lives lost.
Yet the emerging picture of horrific losses could refocus attention on the refusal so far of NATO alliance countries to provide fighter jets or conduct patrols to protect Ukrainian airspace. , despite repeated pleas from the country’s embattled president.
The scale of the devastation in Mariupol, where bodies remained unburied amidst bomb craters and buildings hollowed out by relentless attacks, 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 shelter in the theatre, many of them because their homes had been destroyed during the attack. of the seat of Russia. The building had a bomb shelter in the basement and some survivors emerged from the rubble after the attack.
The new reported death toll came a day after US President Joe Biden and allied leaders promised more military aid for Ukraine was coming.. But they did not provide the heavy weapons that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said were urgently needed. NATO countries fear that the supply of planes, tanks and the no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace will increase the risk that they will be drawn into a direct conflict with Russia.
The United States and the European Union on Friday announced a decision to further tighten Russia economically: a partnership to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. and slowly drying up the billions of dollars the Kremlin makes from fossil fuel sales.
Even without a direct conflict between Russian and NATO forces, the most serious security crisis in Europe since World War II has pushed relations to breaking point. The Kremlin is bristling at the tightening of sanctions against Russia’s economy, currency and business leaders accused of supporting President Vladimir Putin. Its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on Friday called the Western pressure “a real hybrid war, a total war”.
“And the goals are not hidden,” he continued, “they are publicly declared — to destroy, smash, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy and Russia as a whole.”
In Ukrainian towns, which day by day look more and more like the ruins that Russian forces left in previous campaigns in Syria and Chechnya, the misery of civilians is becoming more and more acute.
Those who can try to flee, emptying their cities. In relentlessly bombarded Kharkiv, it was mainly elderly women who came to collect food and other urgent supplies. In the capital of kyiv, the ashes of the dead are piling up at the main crematorium because so many loved ones have left, leaving urns unclaimed.
Meanwhile, vulnerable people – the elderly, children and others unable to join millions heading west – face food shortages in a country once known as the breadbasket of the world.
Agitated with anticipation, a young girl in Kharkiv this week watched intently as a volunteer’s knife cut through a giant slice of cheese, carving out thick slices – one for each hungry person stoically waiting in line.
Hanna Spitsyna was responsible for distributing the delivery of food aid from the Ukrainian Red Cross, distributing it to her neighbours. Each was given a piece of cheese which was cut under the child’s watchful gaze, dropped piece by piece into plastic bags that people in line held open like hungry mouths.
“They gave us help, they gave us help for the elderly women who stayed here,” Spitsyna said. “All these people need nappies, nappies and food.”
Unable to sweep at lightning speed into kyiv, the apparent target on February 24 when the Kremlin launched the war, Russian forces instead rain shells and missiles on towns from afar. Kyiv, like other cities, has seen its population drastically reduced in the vast refugee crisis that has seen more than 10 million people displaced, including at least 3.5 million who have fled the country altogether.
The Russian military claimed on Friday that it had 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 fireball explosion near the capital.
The outskirts of Kharkiv were shrouded in hazy smoke on Friday, with constant shelling since early morning. At a city hospital, several wounded soldiers arrived with gunshot and shrapnel wounds a day after medics treated about 10 civilians. Even as doctors stabilized the most serious case, the sound of shelling could be heard in the operating room.
At an emergency NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday, Zelenskyy pleaded with Western allies via video for planes, tanks, rockets, air defense systems and other weapons, saying his country “defended our common values”.
The invasion has sharpened an energy and moral dilemma for European nations that heat homes and power industries with Russian fossil fuels. Alarmed that the billions they pay could be funneled by the Kremlin into its war effort, they are accelerating the search for alternatives.
Germany said on Friday it had concluded contracts with new suppliers that would significantly reduce its dependence on Russian coal, gas and oil in the coming weeks. Biden said the new US-EU gas supply partnership will help curtail Putin’s use of energy sales to “coerce and manipulate his neighbors” and “drive his war machine.” Under the plan, the United States and other countries will increase their liquefied natural gas exports to Europe by 15 billion cubic meters this year.
As millions of Ukrainians fled west, Ukraine accused Moscow of forcibly evicting hundreds of thousands of civilians from broken cities to Russia to pressure kyiv to give up. Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s ombudsman, said 402,000 people, including 84,000 children, had been taken against their will to Russia, where some could be used as “hostages” to pressure kyiv to surrender.
The Kremlin gave nearly identical numbers for those who were relocated, but said they came from the predominantly Russian-speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and wanted to go to Russia. Pro-Moscow separatists have been fighting for control for nearly eight years in those regions, where many have backed close ties to Russia.
In other developments:
—In Chernihiv, where an airstrike this week destroyed a crucial bridge, city official Olexander Lomako said a “humanitarian catastrophe” was unfolding as Russian forces targeted food storage locations. He said there were about 130,000 people left in the besieged city, about half of its pre-war population.
— 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 it was told by Ukrainian authorities that Russian bombing was preventing the rotation of workers in and out of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. He said Russian forces bombed Ukrainian checkpoints in the town of Slavutych, home to many Chernobyl nuclear workers, “putting them at risk and preventing a further turnover of personnel to and from the site”.
Rosa reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine