Russia-Ukraine war: In Mariupol, theatre sheltering ‘hundreds of civilians’ bombed

On a day that US president Joe Biden called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a war criminal, his troops bombed a theatre in Ukraine’s Mariupol, where hundreds were taking shelter. The words “children” were etched out in the ground of the building, but that did not stop the attack

This photo released by Donetsk Regional Civil-Military Administration Council on Wednesday shows the Drama Theatre, damaged after shelling, in Mariupol, Ukraine. AP

Russia’s assault in Ukraine is becoming more brutal with each passing day. It’s bombing city after city and not sparing the war-hit countries population. In what is probably the most deadly attack on civilians since 24 February, Russia destroyed a theatre sheltering hundreds in the besieged city of Mariupol, according to Ukraine.

Moscow, however, has once again denied attacking civilians. The Russian military forces said that they did not strike the building.

Ukraine officials claim that apart from the theatre where civilians were taking refuge, there were airstrikes on a swimming pool, where pregnant women and children had gathered. The Russian troops have also been accused of shelling a convoy of cars fleeing the city, Guardian reports.

“We don’t know if there are any survivors”

There are no reports of how many succumbed in what Mariupol city council described as “bomb on a building where hundreds of peaceful Mariupol residents were hiding”. One witness said, “We don’t know if there are any survivors.”

Ukraine foreign affairs minister Dmytro Kuleba posted a picture of the destroyed theatre building, calling out Russia for another war crime. “Theater where hundreds of innocent civilians were hiding. The building is now fully ruined. Russians could not have not known this was a civilian shelter. Save Mariupol! Stop Russian war criminals,” he wrote on Twitter.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration, posted pictures and videos of the Mariupol Drama Theatre and the Neptune Pool buildings on Telegram, saying the “Russians are deliberately attacking civilians”, reports Al Jazeera. The middle section of the theatre was in ruins, with smoke rising from the debris, and the windows and roof of the pool are blown apart.

The words “children” were etched out in the ground on both sides of the theatre building, reveal satellite images from March 14 shared by private satellite company Maxar, according to the report.

Russia has blamed Azov Battalion, a far-right Ukrainian militia, for the attack on the theatre, says news agency RIA. But they failed to provide any evidence to support their allegations.

Mariupol mayhem continues

According to Human Rights Watch, the theatre was sheltering at least 500 civilians. Ukraine authorities claim that there were “more than a thousand people” hiding.

Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskyy compared the siege of the city to that of the Soviet city of Leningrad attacked by Nazi Germany in World War II. “Our hearts are broken by what Russia is doing to our people,” he added.

The south-eastern city of Mariupol is among the worst-hit in Ukraine. It has been facing a humanitarian crisis for more than 10 days. The constant bombardment has left more than 2,300 dead, according to Ukrainian authorities. Those holed up inside the city are left struggling with water, food, and electricity.

Bodies on the streets

In Mariupol, even humanitarian corridors have been under attack, making it impossible for those stranded to escape. The first evacuees from the city arrived in Zaporizhzhia on Tuesday. So far, 20,000 have managed to leave the city; many headed toward the west in Ukraine, and other to Poland after several failed evacuation attempts earlier this month.

Recalling the harrowing escape, Dmytro told Al Jazeera that it had been his third attempt to leave the city. He was living underground with his family in freezing conditions. Describing the mayhem on the streets he said, “Sometimes bodies are in the street for three days. The smell is in the air…”

The death toll continues to rise in Mariupol, but for the city under continuous fire it has become impossible to keep count of the casualties. Mass graves have been dug on the outskirts.

In a hospital, Ukraine authorities say 400 have been taken hostage. “The Russians rushed 400 people from neighbouring houses to our hospital. We can’t leave,” one employee posted on Telegram, according to the Guardian report.

Those trapped in the city allege that the Russians are bombing radio and telecommunication towers, cutting them off from the rest of the country.

While Mariupol is seeing the worst of the war, the other parts of the country are not spared. At least 13 people were killed in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv while they were standing in a queue waiting for bread on Wednesday.

As the assault turns bloodier, US president Joe Biden for first time called Putin a war criminal, his harshest criticism of the Russian autocrat. Condemning the comment, Moscow said the rebuke was “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric”.

With inputs from agencies

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