Rescue workers have been digging survivors out of the rubble of a theatre which was reportedly bombed in a Russian airstrike in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, according to officials.
Prior to Wednesday’s attack, up to 1,000 men, women and children were thought to have taken shelter in the Drama Theatre’s basement seeking safety from the onslaught by President Vladimir Putin’s forces.
Earlier this week, a satellite image of the building showed the Russian word for “children” written in giant letters at both ends of the building, in an apparent bid to protect it from the shelling.
The shelter is believed to have stood firm and rescuers have been clearing rubble blocking the entrance to the basement, despite new strikes reported elsewhere in the city.
Mariupol has suffered the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the three-week war, with hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in basements with no food, water or power.
Live updates – ’21 killed in airstrike on school and community centre in Merefa’
Ukraine’s ombudswoman Ludmyla Denisova said on the Telegram messaging app: “The (theatre) building withstood the impact of a high-powered air bomb and protected the lives of people hiding in the bomb shelter.”
She and Ukrainian parliament member Sergiy Taruta said some survivors had emerged.
“People are coming out alive,” Mr Taruta wrote on Facebook, though he did not say how many. And it was unclear if there were injuries or deaths among those inside.
A city mayoral adviser, Petro Andrushchenko, said “now the rubble is being cleared”, adding: “There are survivors.”
Russia’s defence ministry denied targeting the building, according to Russian news agency RIA, instead accusing a far-right Ukrainian militia of blowing it up – but provided no evidence for this claim. The ministry also denied bombing anywhere else in Mariupol on Wednesday.
In other developments:
• Zelenskyy: Germany put its economy before Ukraine security in run-up to invasion
• Putin urges ‘self-purification’ to rid Russia of anyone who questions invasion
• Russia attacks Biden for calling Putin a ‘war criminal’
• Fourth Russian general killed in fighting, Ukraine says
• UN Security Council to hold meeting on Ukraine later today
Mariupol’s mayor Vadym Boychenko said more than a thousand people had been sheltering in the theatre, adding: “We will never forgive this.”
‘Children and pregnant women buried under rubble’
Russian airstrikes also hit a municipal swimming pool complex in the city where civilians, including women and children, had been sheltering, Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional administration, said on Telegram.
“Now there are pregnant women and women with children under the rubble there,” he said.
Russian invasion ‘largely stalled’
The latest Ministry of Defence update indicates Russian forces have made “minimal progress” on land, sea and air in recent days.
They “continue to suffer heavy losses” and the invasion has “largely stalled on all fronts”, the MoD said.
More than 7,000 Russian soldiers have died since the invasion began on 24 February, estimates from American intelligence agencies show.
Estimates suggest more than 150,000 Russian troops have now entered Ukraine since 24 February, with around 14,000 to 21,000 injured.
Meanwhile, the MoD described the Ukrainian defence as “staunch and well-coordinated”, and said the vast majority of territory remains in Ukrainian hands.
This follows reports that Russia is struggling with resources and morale.
It comes, however, as a Russian airstrike just before dawn on Thursday killed 21 people and destroyed a school and community centre in Merefa, near the northeast city of Kharkiv, according to officials.
And the governor of the northern city of Chernihiv said it has experienced “colossal losses and destruction” from Russian artillery and airstrikes.
Viacheslav Chaus told Ukrainian TV the bodies of 53 people had been taken to city morgues in the last 24 hours.
Also, another morning attack on the capital, Kyiv, just after 5am on Thursday, killed at least one person and wounded three.
Emergency services said the 16-storey building was hit by remains of a downed missile.
Read more: Mariupol – a city under siege
Biden labels Putin ‘war criminal’
Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians, but such cases appear to have fuelled President Joe Biden’s incendiary assertion that President Vladimir Putin is a “war criminal”.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, called it “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric by the leader of a country from whose bombs hundreds of thousands of people have died”.
Another $800m of military aid to Ukraine has been approved after President Zelenskyy addressed the US Congress and invoked the 9/11 and Pearl Harbor attacks.
America’s additional pledge includes 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems; 2,000 surface-to-air Javelin missiles; 6,000 portable anti-tank weapons and 100 so-called Switchblade “kamikaze” drones.
Despite peace talks appearing to make progress – with hints that Ukraine may agree to stay neutral and out of NATO – the situation on the ground remains grim.
Relentless strikes pounded the second-biggest city of Kharkiv, in the northeast. However, officials said they were still managing to hold off Russian moves into the heart of the city.
Another apparent success was in occupied Kherson, on the Black Sea, where new satellite images of the airport appeared to show Russian helicopters and vehicles on fire after a strike on Tuesday.
Ukraine’s General Staff said the Russians were trying to remove any surviving military equipment, and that further afield its ground offensive on major cities had mostly stalled.
Kidnapped mayor freed
In Melitopol, the mayor Ivan Fedorov, who was kidnapped five days ago, has now been freed, President Zelenskyy said.
The Interfax Ukraine news agency – quoting the president’s press aide – said he was swapped for nine captured Russian soldiers.
The three-week war has now killed 726 civilians, the UK’s Ministry of Defence said in its latest update on Wednesday night, citing UN figures.
However, it said the true casualty figure “is likely to be significantly greater”.