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300 killed in theatre strike, says Ukraine

KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) – A Russian airstrike last week that blasted open a theatre being used as a shelter in the suffering city of Mariupol killed about 300 people, Ukrainian authorities said, marking what could be the war’s deadliest known attack on civilians yet.

The death toll announced on Friday fuelled allegations that Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, whether deliberately or with indiscriminate fire.

Russia, meanwhile, seemed to signal an important shift in its war objectives with an announcement that it plans to focus its forces on eastern Ukraine.

United States (US) officials said Russian troops appeared to have halted for now their ground offensive aimed at capturing the capital, Kyiv, and were concentrating more on gaining control of the Donbas region in the country’s southeast.

However, British defence officials reported yesterday that the Russian military continues to besiege a number of other major Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv and Chernihiv in the north.

“It is likely Russia will continue to use its heavy firepower on urban areas as it looks to limit its own already considerable losses, at the cost of further civilian casualties,” the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense said in its latest intelligence briefing on the war.

Satellite image showing the aftermath of the airstrike on the Mariupol Drama theatre, Ukraine and the area around it. PHOTO: AP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again appealed to Russia to negotiate an end to the war, but pointedly said he would not give up any Ukrainian territory for the sake of peace.

“The territorial integrity of Ukraine should be guaranteed,” he said in a nightly video address to the nation. “That is, the conditions must be fair, for the Ukrainian people will not accept them otherwise.”

Mariupol, a strategically located port city in southeast Ukraine, has been under attack for almost the entire war. For days, the Mariupol government was unable to give a casualty count for the March 16 bombardment of the grand, columned Mariupol Drama Theatre.

In an attempt to ward off an attack on the theatre, where hundreds of people were sheltering, the word “CHILDREN” was printed in Russian in huge white letters on the ground outside.

The city government cited eyewitnesses when it announced the death toll on its Telegram channel. But it was not immediately clear how witnesses arrived at the figure or whether emergency workers had finished excavating the ruins.

US President Joe Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan said the theatre bombing was an “absolute shock, particularly given the fact that it was so clearly a civilian target”. He said it showed “a brazen disregard for the lives of innocent people” in the besieged port city.

The Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner said soon after the attack that more than 1,300 people had taken shelter in the theatre, many of them because their homes were destroyed. The building had a basement bomb shelter, and some survivors did emerge from the rubble after the attack.