Ukrainian city of Mariupol searches for survivors amid rubble of theatre

Rescue work was under way to reach survivors and establish the number of casualties. PHOTO: REUTERS
Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre, Mariupol, in 2021. PHOTO: OLEKSANDR MALYON

LVIV (REUTERS) - Rescue workers were searching for survivors in the rubble of a theatre in the besieged city of Mariupol on Thursday (March 17), after Ukraine said a powerful Russian air strike hit the building where hundreds of people had been sheltering from the war.

The port city is encircled by Russian forces and has seen fierce bombardment.

A statement from the city council said that about 30,000 residents had managed to escape so far, but more than 350,000 remained stuck there.

“The heart is breaking from what Russia does to our people, our Mariupol, and our Donetsk region,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a late night address on Wednesday, after referring to the theatre attack.

The city council said hundreds of people, mostly women, children and the elderly, had been hiding in the theatre and a nearby swimming pool building because of heavy shelling.

“Information about the victims is still being clarified,” it said.

Earlier, Petro Andrushchenko, an adviser to the city’s mayor, said some people survived the blast and the bomb shelter had held. Emergency workers were looking for them in the rubble.

Russia has denied bombing the theatre.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday that the allegation that Russia had bombed the theatre was a “lie”, and repeated Kremlin denials that Russian forces have targeted civilians since the Feb 24 invasion of Ukraine.

“Russia’s armed forces don’t bomb towns and cities,” she told in a briefing.

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Satellite images of the theatre taken earlier this week before it was struck show a large structure with a red roof and the Russian word for “children” painted in large white letters on the tarmac at the front and back.

Mariupol council said the physical damage to the city had been “enormous”. It estimated that around 80 per cent of the city’s homes had been destroyed, of which almost 30 per cent was beyond repair.

On the outskirts of town, Reuters reporters saw people leaving on foot and in cars, some pushing their belongings in shopping carts. In the background there were badly burned and bombed apartment blocks, some still smouldering.

Yuriy Ryzhenkov, chief executive officer of Ukraine’s largest steelmaker Metinvest, said he was keeping intermittent contact with some of the company’s employees still in Mariupol.

“For the last two days, the bombing was literally happening every 30 minutes, so in reality people couldn’t even get out of the bomb shelters or their basements,” he told Reuters from somewhere close to Kyiv.

Mariopol was, he said, “... our pride. Now we are seeing all of the work that we have done over the last eight years just being destroyed, completely destroyed, and that’s a very sad feeling.”

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