Hundreds Feared Trapped in Ukrainian Theater After Airstrike

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian authorities struggled to determine the fate of hundreds of civilians who had been sheltering in a theater smashed by a Russian airstrike in the besieged city of Mariupol as officials said Russian artillery Thursday destroyed more civilian buildings in another frontline city.

A photo released by Mariupol’s city council showed an entire section of the large, 3-story theater had collapsed after the strike Wednesday evening. Several hundred people had taken refuge in the building, seeking safety amid Russia’s 3-week, strangulating siege of the strategic Azov Sea port city.

At least as recently as Monday, the pavement in front of and behind the once-elegant theater was marked with huge white letters spelling out “CHILDREN” in Russian, according to images released by the Maxar space technology company.

The theater’s entrance was buried in rubble, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko (head of Donetsk region administration), via Telegram.

Kyrylenko reported that Russian airstrikes also targeted a Mariupol swimming pool complex, where many civilians, including children and women, were hiding. “Now there are pregnant women and women with children under the rubble there,” he wrote, thought the number of casualties was not immediately known.

“My heart breaks from what Russia is doing to our people,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday night after the theater strike. He delivered an address via video to Congress hours earlier that received many ovations and called for additional help.

Moscow’s defense ministry denies that the Russian defense minister bombed Mariupol theater and other locations on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Russian artillery destroyed a school and a community center in Merefa, a city near the northeast city of Kharkiv, according to Merefa’s mayor Veniamin Sitov. It is not known if civilians were injured. As stalled Russian forces attempt to move in the region, heavy bombardment has been experienced in Kharkiv.

Six nations have called for a U.N. Security Council meeting on Ukraine on Thursday afternoon, ahead of an expected vote Friday on a Russian resolution demanding protection for Ukrainian civilians “in vulnerable situations,” yet making no mention of Moscow’s responsibility for the war.

“Russia is committing war crimes and targeting civilians,” Britain’s U.N. Mission tweeted, announcing the call for the meeting that was joined by the U.S., France and others. “Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine is a threat to us all.”

Russian terrorists attacked large cities and villages in Ukraine’s vast territory, including Kyiv. There, residents are huddled together in their homes or shelters as the Russians wreak havoc.

An explosion from a Russian satellite rocket caused a fire to erupt in an apartment block in Kyiv. According to emergency services one person was killed and at least three more were hurt. The fire was extinguished by firefighters within one hour after 30 residents were evacuated from the top floors on the 16-story building.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went on television to Wednesday excoriate Russians who don’t back him, even as both sides expressed optimism over efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting.

Russians “will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths,” he said. “I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.”

He said the West is using a “fifth column” of traitorous Russians to create civil unrest.

“And there is only one goal, I have already spoken about it — the destruction of Russia,” he said.

It appeared that the speech was a warning to his authoritarian control, already more restrictive since February 24th’s invasion, when he shut down Russian news outlets, and arrested protesters, would only get tighter.

In a sign of that, Russian law enforcement announced the first known criminal cases under a new law that allows for 15-year prison terms for posting what is deemed to be “false information” about the Ukraine war. Veronika Belozerkovskaya (a Russian-language blogger and cookbook author) was among those who were charged.

It also occurred amid indications that negotiations were making some progress.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after Tuesday’s meeting that a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by the two sides, while Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands for ending the war were becoming “more realistic.”

Wednesday’s talks, held by video, appeared to wade more deeply into technicalities.

Mikhailo Podolyak a Zelenskyy adviser said Ukraine wanted a cease-fire. Russia must withdraw its troops. There should also be security guarantees to Ukraine from other countries.

“This is possible only through direct dialogue” between Zelenskyy and Putin, he tweeted.

An official in Zelenskyy’s office told The Associated Press that the main subject under discussion was whether Russian troops would remain in separatist regions in eastern Ukraine after the war and where the borders would be.

An official speaking under anonymity in order to talk about sensitive negotiations said that Ukraine wanted one or more Western nukes powers included in negotiations. He also requested a legally binding document providing security guarantees for Ukraine. According to the official, Ukraine was open for discussion on a neutral status.

Russia requested that NATO make a promise not to admit Ukraine in the alliance and station any forces there.

Earlier Wednesday, Zelenskyy went before the U.S. Congress via video and, invoking Pearl Harbor and 9/11, pleaded with America for more weapons and tougher sanctions against Russia, saying: “We need you right now.”

Joe Biden declared that the U.S. would send $800 millions more military aid to Ukraine. He also called Putin a “war criminal,” in his sharpest condemnation since the invasion began.

Although Moscow’s ground advance on the Ukrainian capital appeared largely stalled, Putin said earlier that the operation was unfolding “successfully, in strict accordance with pre-approved plans.” He also decried Western sanctions against Moscow, accusing the West of trying to “squeeze us, to put pressure on us, to turn us into a weak, dependent country.”

According to U.N. estimates, more than 3,000,000 people fled Ukraine because of the fighting. Although the death toll is unknown, Ukraine claims that thousands of civilians died.

Mariupol has been the most affected. Local officials claim that missile strikes and bombings have claimed more than 2300 lives. Nearly all three weeks of war have seen the southern port of 430,000 under siege. People are left without food, water or medicine.

Valeriy Drengar used his flashlight to light a basement hospital and pulled back a blanket so that he could see the infant’s body. Others wrapped bodies appeared to also be children.

“These are the people we could not save,” Drengar said.

—Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau, in Lviv, Ukraine, and other AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.

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