Airstrike destroys Mariupol theater where hundreds sheltered

Russia At War

(NewsNation) — A Russian airstrike destroyed a theater building in Mariupol where hundreds of people were sheltering from bombs, the city council said, as heavy shelling continues in war-torn Ukraine.

There was no immediate word on deaths or injuries.

The seaport city of Mariupol is among the most devastated of places in Ukraine — its geography puts it squarely in the path of Russian troops trying to take over the country. Mariupol is now encircled by Russian soldiers, who have cut off access to food, electricity and water. Some have taken to leaving their dead loved ones in the street, with local officials saying it’s too dangerous to hold funerals.

This is the third week of war in Ukraine, since Russian forces invaded Feb. 24. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden gave the sharpest condemnation yet of Russia’s actions by a U.S. official when he called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal” at an event.

On Wednesday, a Ukrainian official announced that the mayor of the southeastern Ukrainian city of Melitopol was freed after being seized by Russian forces five days ago.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a “businesslike spirit” is emerging in talks with Ukraine that are now focused on a neutral status.

“A neutral status is being seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Lavrov said Wednesday. “There are concrete formulations that in my view are close to being agreed.”

Russia’s chief negotiator in the latest round of talks with Ukraine, which started Monday and are set to continue Wednesday, said the sides are discussing a possible compromise idea for a future Ukraine with a smaller, nonaligned military.

There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials.

The Committee of Ministers decided Wednesday that the Russian Federation is to be excluded from the Council of Europe after 26 years of membership.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that the country realizes that it can’t join NATO. Ukraine’s bid to join the Western military alliance has been a sore point for Moscow.

Zelenskyy addressed Congress on Wednesday to rally support for Ukraine.

“Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided,” Zelenskyy said to members of the House and Senate. “We need you right now. I call on you to do more.”

He asked the U.S. to “please take the lead” while citing Pearl Harbor and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 in his appeal. Zelenskyy thanked Congress for its overwhelming support but he says he needs more aid.

Biden plans to travel to Europe next week for face-to-face talks with European leaders about the Russian invasion and will attend an extraordinary NATO summit in Brussels.

“It’s a great way for President Biden to be seen as being presidential and commander in chief,” NewsNation’s Leland Vittert said. “And there’s nothing more presidential than flying into an area not far from where the Russian military is to lead NATO.”

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, said Wednesday Russian forces shot and killed 10 people standing in line for bread in Chernihiv.

Kyiv residents huddled in homes and shelters, waiting out a citywide curfew that ends Thursday morning.

Wednesday’s remarks come as Russia advanced on areas around Kyiv and within the city, where a 12-story apartment building erupted in flames after being hit by shrapnel obliterating the top floor and igniting a fire that sent plumes of smoke over the area, according to a statement and images released by the Kyiv emergencies agency.

The neighboring building was also damaged. The agency reported two victims, without saying if they were injured or killed. Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko says Russian shelling damaged several residences in the city’s Podil neighborhood. He did not say whether there were any casualties.

Russian forces are also fighting in the Kyiv suburbs, notably around the town of Bucha in the northwest and the highway leading west toward Zhytomyr, Ukraine’s Kyiv regional leader Oleksiy Kuleba said.

A senior U.S. defense official told the Associated Press in anonymity that the Russians were using long-range fire to hit civilian targets inside Kyiv with increasing frequency, but that their ground forces were making little to no progress around the country. The official said Russian troops were still about 15 kilometers from the center of the capital.

Twelve towns around Kyiv were reported to be without water and six without heat. Across the capital region, “kindergartens, museums, churches, residential blocks and engineering infrastructure are suffering from the endless firing,” Kuleba said.

He said Russian troops were trying to cut off transportation links to the capital and to destroy logistical capabilities while planning a wide-ranging attack to seize the capital.

Overnight, Russian forces succeeded in occupying the city of Ivankiv, 50 miles north of Kyiv, and now control the surrounding region on the border with Belarus, Kuleba said.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk expressed dismay Wednesday at reports that Russian forces took at least 400 medics and civilian residents hostage Tuesday at a hospital in Mariupol.

The Russians are using the hospital as a firing position, Vereshchuk said. She said Russian forces have fired on humanitarian convoys and gathering points for evacuees, complicating work to open aid and evacuation convoys Wednesday after thousands managed to leave Mariupol on Tuesday.

Ukrainian officials gave varying figures on how many people were successfully evacuated from Mariupol so far and how many made it to Zaporizhzhia, a city 141 miles west designated as the end of the evacuation route.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed Russian forces have destroyed 111 Ukrainian aircraft, 160 drones and more than 1,000 tanks or other military vehicles since the start of what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The United Nations human rights office said on Tuesday that the latest confirmed civilian toll in Ukraine is 691 people killed and 1,143 injured. To date, more than three million people have fled the country since the start of the invasion.

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