Rescue efforts are ongoing for hundreds of people sheltering in a Mariupol theatre where a Russian airstrike hit, Ukraine government officials claim.
According to officials from the Ukrainian government, several people were buried. Russia has denied bombing the theatre or attacking civilians.
While speaking to the BBC, Sergei Orlov, the deputy mayor of Mariupol, said that most people who had sought refuge in the building survived.
“We were surprised to see that more than 1,000 people sheltering in the theatre survived the airstrike,” he said.
Hundreds of people had sought refuge at the theatre after their homes were destroyed in the ongoing war with Russian forces. With a population of more than 40,000 thousand people, the southern port city has experienced enormous destruction for the past three weeks.
On March 16, a photo was released by Mariupol City Council to social media showing the extent of the destruction. They said the airstrike was an intentional act by the Russian government to destroy the theatre.
“The bomb was dropped on top of a building where innocent civilians were sheltering,” the council said.
Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, referred to the bombing of the theatre as a “horrendous war crime.”
“The building is totally ruined. Russia knew that the building was hosting hundreds of innocent civilians but still went ahead to bomb it. No amount of bombing and intimidation will stop us from defending our county. Live long Mariupol”, wrote Kuleba on his Twitter handle.
But the Russian Embassy in the United States has downplayed the bombing of the theatre, terming it as “fake news.” Embassy officials instead blamed Ukrainian militants for hosting civilians in the theatre and exploding a mined cultural object.
All communication was disrupted, making it impossible to verify the number of casualties. Ukrainian officials insisted that most of the people inside the theatre survived the attack.
“We hope and believe that many people are stuck under the rubble. We have been working day and night to try and rescue hundreds of people covered by the rubble”, the mayor’s office said.
Orlov told journalists that the theatre has a modern basement shelter with the ability to withstand airstrikes.
In Eastern Ukraine, another shelter where pregnant women and children were sheltering was hit by an airstrike on Wednesday, but no casualties were reported. According to the head of the Donetsk regional administration, the number of airstrikes has continued to grow in the past few days.
While speaking to the German lawmakers, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested more help. He said thousands of citizens had been killed, including over 100 children. The Ukrainian leader who has received praise worldwide said his country was at the brink and desperately needed help from friends.
“The Russian troops have continued to target innocent civilians and our country’s infrastructure. They aim to weaken all our systems and bring us to surrender,” said Zelenskyy. “But we are going to fight this fight to the end. We urge all kinds of help at this critical time.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started on February 24. British intelligence revealed that Russian forces have experienced strong resistance from Ukrainians. Although the two countries have agreed to negotiate, critics are skeptical about Putin’s commitment to end the war.