Authorities in Ukraine have accused Russian forces of bombing a theatre as well as a pool facility in the besieged southern city of Mariupol where hundreds of civilians, including pregnant women and children, are said to have taken refuge from the conflict.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration, posted pictures and videos of the Mariupol Drama Theatre and the Neptune Pool buildings on Telegram, saying the “Russians are deliberately attacking civilians” after Wednesday’s bombings.
The photos showed the middle section of the theatre building completely destroyed with thick white smoke rising from the rubble. Videos of the pool facility showed windows, doors and the roof blown out.
He said there were pregnant women and children under the debris and condemned the attack as “pure terrorism”.
Another horrendous war crime in Mariupol. Massive Russian attack on the Drama Theater where hundreds of innocent civilians were hiding. The building is now fully ruined. Russians could not have not known this was a civilian shelter. Save Mariupol! Stop Russian war criminals! pic.twitter.com/bIQLxe7mli
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) March 16, 2022
Satellite images of the theatre on March 14, shared by private satellite company Maxar, showed the words “children” clearly etched out in the ground in Russian on either side of the building.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry said Russia had committed a “horrendous war crime”.
“It is impossible to find words to describe the level of cynicism and cruelty, with which Russian invaders are destroying peaceful residents of a Ukrainian city by the sea,” it added.
The Russian defence ministry, however, denied attacking the building and accused the Azov Battalion, a far-right Ukrainian militia, of blowing it up, according to the RIA news agency.
It provided no evidence to support the allegation.
Authorities in Mariupol rejected the Russian claim as “lies”.
Kyrylenko, the head of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration, said the Russians “are well aware there were only children”.
The Mariupol City Council suggested hundreds of people were in the building at the time of the attack.
“The invaders destroyed the Drama Theatre. A place where more than a thousand people found refuge. We will never forgive this,” the Mariupol City Council said in a Telegram post.
Human Rights Watch said the theatre had been housing at least 500 civilians.
“This raises serious concerns about what the intended target was in a city where civilians have already been under siege for days and telecommunications, power, water, and heating have been almost completely cut off,” said Belkis Wille, a senior researcher in the rights group’s conflict and crisis division.
Separately, Ukrainian authorities said at least 13 people had been killed by Russian forces in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv while they were standing in a queue waiting for bread.
Russia’s defence ministry again denied the charges, arguing that none of its troops were in Chernihiv, and that the atrocity was carried out either by Ukrainian forces or was simply a ruse by Ukrainian intelligence.
Later on Wednesday in the same city in northern Ukraine, five people, including three children, were killed when Russian forces shelled a residential building, emergency officials said.
Putin says operation going to plan
The latest attacks came as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its fourth week. Despite expectations from some officials that Moscow would win the war within days, Russian troops have failed to take any major Ukrainian cities and have halted at the gates of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, after taking heavy losses.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said the operation was unfolding “successfully, in strict accordance with pre-approved plans”, and condemned Western sanctions against Moscow.
He accused the West of trying to “squeeze us, to put pressure on us, to turn us into a weak, dependent country”.
International pressure against the Kremlin mounted and its isolation deepened as the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, ordered Russia to stop attacking Ukraine, though there was little expectation it would comply.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Kyiv, said countries that refuse to abide by court orders can be referred to the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds veto power. However, the ruling “helps build the case for any prosecution down the road”, Khan said.
The fighting has sent more than three million people fleeing Ukraine, according to the UN refugee agency.
Another round of talks between the two sides was scheduled for Wednesday. After Tuesday’s negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by the two sides, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands for ending the war were becoming “more realistic”.
Hopes for diplomatic progress to end the war rose after Zelenskyy acknowledged on Tuesday in the most explicit terms yet that Ukraine is unlikely to realise its goal of joining NATO. Putin has long depicted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia.
Lavrov welcomed Zelenskyy’s comment and said “the businesslike spirit” starting to surface in the talks “gives hope that we can agree on this issue”.
“A neutral status is being seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Lavrov said on Russian TV.
“There are concrete formulations that in my view are close to being agreed.”
Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said the sides were discussing a possible compromise for a Ukraine with a smaller, non-aligned military.
However, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak denied Russian claims Ukraine was open to adopting a model of neutrality comparable to Sweden or Austria. Podolyak said Ukraine needs powerful allies and “clearly defined security guarantees” to keep it safe.
Earlier in a speech to the United States Congress by video link, Zelenskyy appealed for tougher sanctions on Russia and more weapons to help his country.
He invoked the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and quoted Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine – a move western countries including the US have decided against.
US President Joe Biden later announced the US will be sending more anti-aircraft, anti-armour weapons and drones and called Putin a “war criminal” while talking to reporters. The Kremlin spokesman said the comment was “unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric”.