KYIV, Ukraine – Ukrainian authorities fought to determine the fate of civilians who sought refuge in a theater destroyed by a Russian airstrike in the besieged city of Mariupol as officials say Russian artillery destroyed more civilian buildings in another frontline town on Thursday.
Some hopes were raised, as an official said some people had survived the Mariupol theater strike.
A photo released by the city council of Mariupol shows an entire section of a large, 3-story theater collapsing after a strike on Wednesday evening. Hundreds of people took refuge in the basement of the building for safety amid a three-week siege of the strategic Russian port city of Azov.
According to a photo released by Maxer Space Technology Company, at least as recently as Monday, the front and back sidewalks of the once elegant theater were marked with huge white letters in Russian written “Children”.
The wreckage crushed the shelter’s entrance inside the theater and the number of casualties was unclear, Pavlo Kirilenko, head of Donetsk’s regional administration, said in a telegram. Sergei Taruta, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, the former governor of the Donetsk region where Mariupol is located, later said on Facebook that some people had managed to escape the destroyed building alive. He did not provide further details.
Kyrylenko said the Russian airstrikes also hit a municipal swimming pool complex in Mariupol, where civilians, including women and children, were taking refuge. “There are now pregnant women and women with children at the bottom of the rubble,” he wrote, adding that the number of casualties was not immediately known.
In a video address to German lawmakers on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for more help for his country, saying the war, which began about a month ago, had killed thousands of people, including 108 children.
He also mentioned the dire situation in Mariupol. “Everything is a goal for them,” he said, “including a theater where hundreds of people found shelter that was flattened yesterday.”
The Bundestag’s deputy speaker, Catherine Goering-Eckard, said the address had been delayed due to “technical problems” with an “immediate vicinity” of where Zelensky was speaking.
Zelensky’s speech at the Bundestag came a day after he delivered a video speech to the US Congress calling for more help, which garnered much praise.
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday denied any involvement in the bombing.
Zelensky’s office said Russia had launched more air strikes on Mariupol on Thursday morning, as well as artillery and air strikes across the country, including in the capital Kiev’s Kalinivka and the suburb of Brovary. No casualties were immediately reported.
In Kiev, where residents are sheltering in homes and shelters, according to the emergency services, an apartment building caught fire in the wreckage of a Russian rocket on Thursday morning, killing one person and injuring at least three others. Firefighters evacuated 30 people from the top floor of a 16-story building and extinguished the blaze within an hour.
On Thursday, Russian artillery destroyed a school and a community center in Merefa, a town near the northeastern city of Kharkiv, according to Merefa Mayor Vaniamin Sitov. There were no known civilian casualties. Heavy bombardment was seen in the Kharkiv region as Russian forces tried to advance into the area.
The six countries called for a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine on Thursday afternoon, without mentioning Moscow’s responsibility to fight “in a protected situation” to demand protection of Ukrainian civilians before the expected vote on a Russian resolution on Friday.
“Russia is committing war crimes and targeting civilians,” Britain’s UN mission tweeted, urging the United States, France and others to attend the meeting. “Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine is a threat to all of us.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin went on television Wednesday to congratulate Russians who do not support him.
The Russians will “always be able to distinguish true patriots from filth and traitors, and will accidentally spit them out like ghosts flying in their faces,” he said. “I am convinced that this kind of natural and necessary self-purification of society will strengthen our country.”
He says the West is using the “fifth column” of Russian traitors to create civil unrest.
“And there’s only one goal, I’ve already talked about it – the destruction of Russia,” he said.
The speech came as a warning that his authoritarian regime, which has already tightened since the start of the February 24 attacks, shut down Russian news outlets and arrested protesters, could be even more repressive.
As a sign of this, Russian law enforcement has announced the first known criminal case under a new law that allows up to 15 years in prison for posting what is considered “false information” about the Ukraine war. Among the defendants was Veronica Belotserkovskaya, author of a Russian-language cookbook and a blogger living abroad.
But it also came amid signs that talks are finally moving forward.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by both sides, while Zelensky said Russia’s demands for an end to the war were becoming “more realistic.”
Wednesday’s discussion, held via video, has flown more deeply into technical issues.
Mikhail Podoliak, Zelensky’s adviser, said several countries had demanded a ceasefire in Ukraine, the withdrawal of Russian troops and assurances of Ukraine’s security.
“This is possible only through direct dialogue between Zelensky and Putin,” he tweeted.
An official in Zelensky’s office told The Associated Press that the main topic of discussion was whether Russian troops would remain in the separatist region of eastern Ukraine after the war and where the border would be.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on condition of anonymity, said Ukraine was insisting on the inclusion of one or more Western nuclear powers in the talks and on a legally binding document, including Ukraine’s security guarantee. In return, the official said Ukraine was ready to negotiate a neutral status.
Russia has claimed that NATO has promised not to allow Ukraine to join the coalition or station forces there.
Earlier Wednesday, Zelensky went to the U.S. Congress via video and called on the United States for more weapons and tougher sanctions against Russia, calling for Pearl Harbor and 9/11, saying: “We need you now.”
President Joe Biden has announced that the United States is sending an additional 800 800 million in military aid to Ukraine. In his strongest condemnation since the attack began, he has called Putin a “war criminal.”
Although Moscow’s ground progress in the Ukrainian capital has largely stalled, Putin has previously said that the operation is being unveiled “successfully, strictly with pre-approved plans.” He also denounced Western sanctions against Moscow, accusing it of trying to “push us, pressure us, turn us into a weak, dependent country”.
The United Nations estimates that more than 3 million people have fled Ukraine because of the war. The death toll is still unknown, although Ukraine says thousands of civilians have died.
The besieged city of Mariupol was the hardest hit, with local officials saying more than 2,300 people had been killed in missile strikes and shelling. The southern seaport of 430,000 has been under siege for almost the entire three-week war that has left people struggling for food, water, heat and medicine.
Using the flashlight of his cellphone to illuminate the basement of a hospital, Dr. Valerie Dranger returned a blanket to show the body of a 22-day-old baby. The other wrapped corpses also looked like children.
“These are people we haven’t been able to save,” Drenger said.
The Associated Press writer from Lviv, Ukraine, Uras Karmanov, and other AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.
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