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Survivors leaving basement of Mariupol theatre after airstrike, say officials | Ukraine

Survivors leaving basement of Mariupol theatre after airstrike, say officials | Ukraine

Survivors have emerged from the basement of a theatre in the devastated city of Mariupol that was hit by a Russian airstrike despite being a designated shelter for hundreds of civilians including children and older people, officials have said.

As 21 people were reported dead in a strike on a school and community centre near Kharkiv, and 53 bodies arrived at morgues in Chernihiv, both in the north, rescuers cleared rubble from the basement of the Drama Theatre in the southern port city.

Nearly a day after the attack, there were no reports of deaths and the number of injured remained unconfirmed, but with intense street fighting cutting off communications in much of the city there were also conflicting reports about how many survivors had emerged from the basement shelter, which appeared to have held firm.

“The building withstood the impact of a high-powered air bomb and protected the lives of people hiding in the bomb shelter,” the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudswoman, Lyudmyla Denisova, said.

Theatre before and after

Denisova and a Ukrainian parliament member, Serhiy Taruta, said some survivors had emerged. “After an awful night of not knowing, we finally have good news from Mariupol,” Taruta wrote on Facebook. “People are coming out alive.”

Others were more cautious, however. “The bomb shelter held. Now the rubble is being cleared. There are survivors. We don’t know about the number of victims yet,” said Petro Andrushchenko, an official with the mayor’s office, adding that the shelter was relatively modern and designed to withstand airstrikes.

Russia denied bombing the theatre. The Russian foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, said in Moscow on Thursday that allegations Russia had bombed the building were a “lie”, repeating the Kremlin’s assertion that Russia’s armed forces “don’t bomb towns and cities”.

Tetyana Ignatchenko, a spokesperson for the Donetsk regional military administration, said there had been 1,000 people inside the Mariupol theatre a week ago. “But after that, many people were able to escape,” she said. “We can’t say exactly how many people were in the theatre. We can only assume 400 to 500. Half of them.”

At least as recently as Monday, large white letters on the ground in front of and behind the theatre spelled out “CHILDREN” in Russian – “DETI” – to alert warplanes of those inside, according to images from the Maxar space technology company.

The word ‘children’ is painted in large Russian script on the ground outside the Mariupol drama theatre. Photograph: Maxar/EyePress News/Rex/Shutterstock

Officials posted a photo of the building, its middle part completely destroyed and thick white smoke rising from the rubble. “The only word to describe what has happened today is genocide, genocide of our nation, our Ukrainian people,” the Mariupol mayor, Vadim Boychenko, said.

James Cleverly, Britain’s Europe minister, said the attack “looks to be specific targeting” of a civilian building and thus a “self-evident breach of international law”. He called for evidence of the assault to be documented so those responsible, from “battlefield commanders right up to the top of the organisation, can be held accountable once this war is concluded”.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Donetsk regional administration, said Russian airstrikes also hit a municipal swimming pool complex in Mariupol where civilians had been sheltering. “There are pregnant women and women with children under the rubble there,” he said. The number of casualties was not immediately known.

In north and north-east Ukraine, meanwhile, at least 53 people had died over the past 24 hours in Chernihiv from airstrikes and artillery shells, the local governor Viacheslav Chaus said. The city “has never known such nightmarish, colossal losses and destruction”, he said. Russian artillery also reportedly killed 21 people, including five children, in a school and community centre in Merefa.

Vladimir, 52, a school PE teacher said he knew some of those who died. “They were customs and border control officers, stationed in Merefa,” he said. “One man, Oleg, 28, was a former student of mine. He was a good kid and he had just got married. His daughter was born a few months ago. Oleg was killed. Another one, Artem, only 20 years old. He was injured after the attack. I was teaching him from year one up to his graduation. He was a great football player.

“What a tragedy. We don’t have many jobs in our remote town. But these men had managed to find one as border patrols […] These boys had no idea there’s gonna be an actual war in the 21st century. In Europe. It’s terrifying.’’

Local officials say more than 2,300 residents of Mariupol have died under a rain of missile strikes and shelling. The Black Sea port has been under attack for almost all of the three-week war, leaving people struggling for food, water, heat and medicine.

Mariupol map

Sergiy Orlov, the city’s deputy mayor, said 80-90% of the city had been destroyed by shelling and people were drinking water from puddles. “Our last humanitarian column has been on the road for four days, and Russians don’t let it go into Mariupol,” Orlov said.

“There are buses. We are ready to evacuate 3,000 people a day. They’re not letting us. What’s the solution? Give us a chance to bring humanitarian aid and evacuate everyone who wants to leave. We are ready to do it. They are not ready to give it to us.”

Residents who managed to escape said the most critical situation was to the west of the river that divides the city. “There is no food, no water, people are completely cut off from civilisation,” one man said. “They have no chance to be evacuated to Berdyansk,” a nearby village that displaced people are trying to reach.