300 feared dead at theatre in Ukraine's Mariupol, as evidence of mass graves growing

Russia's Major-General Igor Konashenkov said the depot was used to supply Ukraine's armed forces in the centre of the country. PHOTO: AFP

LVIV/MOSCOW (REUTERS, AFP) - Ukrainian officials in the strategic port city of Mariupol said on Friday (March 25) some 300 people could have died in last week’s Russian strike on a theatre where hundreds were sheltering.

“From eyewitnesses, information is emerging that about 300 people died in the Drama Theatre of Mariupol following strikes by a Russian aircraft,” Mariupol city hall wrote on Telegram.

About 20,000 people have answered appeals to flee the Ukrainian city of Boryspil, which is near an international airport, Boryspil Mayor Volodymyr Borysenko said on national television on Friday (March 25).

He urged others to evacuate, saying the large number of civilians in villages nearby made it difficult for Ukrainian troops to clear Russian forces from the area.

Boryspil international airport is about 30 km east of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

The head of the UN human rights team in Ukraine said on Friday that monitors had received more information about mass graves in the Mariupol, including one that appeared to hold 200 bodies.

"We have got increasing information on mass graves that are there,” Ms Matilda Bogner told journalists by video link from Ukraine, saying some of the evidence came from satellite images.

The UN rights office, which has some 50 staff in the country, has so far counted 1,035 civilian deaths since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.

But verification difficulties meant that toll included "very few" from Mariupol, which has been under heavy bombardment for weeks, Ms Bogner said.

"The extent of civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian objects strongly suggests that the principles of distinction, of proportionality, the rule on feasible precautions and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks have been violated," she said.

A Reuters journalist who reached a part of Mariupol held by Russian forces last Sunday saw several bodies lying by the road and a group of men digging graves in a patch of grass by the roadside.

Ms Bogner’s team is probing alleged human rights violations, such as reports that Russian forces had shot and killed civilians in their cars as they were fleeing; dozens of cases of disappearances of Ukrainian officials and journalists; and the forced movement of civilians into Russian-held territory.

Russia, which has called its actions since Feb 24 a "special military operation", has denied targeting civilians in Ukraine.

Russian news agencies have said buses have carried several hundred people Moscow calls "refugees" from Mariupol to Russia.

Ms Bogdan said her team have also received reports of violations by Ukrainian forces including indiscriminate shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, and two alleged killings of civilians due to their perceived support for Russia.

Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly said that they have never targeted civilians, adding that the people who are in Donetsk and Lugansk are Ukrainians.

Separately, Russia's armed forces destroyed a major fuel depot outside Kyiv in a missile strike, Russia's Defence Ministry said on Friday.

Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told a briefing that the strike happened on Thursday evening, using Kalibr cruise missiles fired from the sea.

Major-General Konashenkov said the depot was used to supply Ukraine's armed forces in the centre of the country.

Reuters was not able to independently verify Maj-Gen Konashenkov's remarks.

In the eastern city of Kharkiv, Russian shelling hit a clinic that was acting as a centre for humanitarian aid, killing four people, the regional police said in a statement on Friday.

"As a result of the morning shelling of civilian infrastructure from multiple rocket launchers, 7 civilians were injured, 4 of whom died," they said in a statement on social media. "There is no military facility nearby."

Reuters could not independently verify the report.

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