The word “children” was spelled out on two sides of the theater before it was struck, according to satellite images.
In the nearby Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, at least 10 people queueing for bread were killed when Russian forces shelled it on Wednesday, a local official, Vyacheslav Chaus, told Ukrainian television. He said the attack was indicative of Russia’s use of indirect fire against civilians.
As the Russian assault intensifies, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday that Russia’s negotiating position in talks between the two countries was becoming “more realistic,” a sentiment reiterated by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who suggested there was “a certain hope for reaching a compromise,” in a televised interview to Russian media outlet RBK.
But while the United States welcomes “the sentiments expressed that there is hope, that there is optimism for diplomatic progress,” it believes Russia must de-escalate for any such progress to actually be achieved, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Wednesday.
Deteriorating situation in ‘hell’ of Mariupol
Russian military strikes continue to bombard Mariupol, which has been besieged by Russian forces since the beginning of March.
Petro Andruishchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, described the bombed theater as the largest shelter “in number and size” in the city’s center. “According to preliminary data, more than a thousand people were hiding there,” he said. “The probability of getting there to dismantle the rubble is low due to constant shelling and bombing of the city.”
The bombing adds to the city’s growing humanitarian crisis. About 350,000 people are trapped in the city and as many as 2,500 civilians have died, Ukrainian officials estimate. Those who remain are without electricity, water and heat.
However, Russian forces also attacked Zaporizhzhia for the first time on Wednesday, hitting a railway station and the area around the botanical garden, Starukh added.
In another southern coastal city, the Ukrainian government said it staged a rescue of the mayor of Russian-occupied Melitopol, who was detained by armed men in the city on March 11.
“A special operation to release the mayor of Melitopol Ivan Fedorov has just been successfully completed. Vanya is safe. We just talked to him together with the president and the head of the Office. I would like to say only one thing — we never leave our people. Ivan will return to his duties as mayor of Ukrainian Melitopol very soon,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office, said in a message on his Telegram channel.
Since Fedorov’s detention, newly installed mayor Galina Danilchenko ordered the broadcasting of Russian television channels and attempted to dissolve the city council and instead create a People’s Committee.
NATO ‘not as essential’
Vladimir Medinsky, the head of the Russian negotiating delegation, was quoted Wednesday as saying the talks were “difficult” and “slow,” and that Moscow’s objectives in negotiations with Ukraine have not changed.
Medinsky was quoted by state media RIA Novosti on Wednesday as saying Moscow wants a “peaceful, free, independent and neutral” Ukraine. He added that the country should not be a member of NATO or any military bloc.
“In the darkest time for our country, for the whole Europe, I call on you to do more,” Zelensky said. “New packages of sanctions are needed, constantly, every week until the Russian military machine stops. Restrictions are needed for everyone on whom this unjust regime is based.”
Olha Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, told CNN the reason why Zelensky did not mention NATO is because it is “not as essential” as a no-fly zone and weapons — and that political aspirations will have to go on hold for now.
“I think that NATO is something which is not as essential as a no-fly zone and more weapons and basically, capability to defend ourselves,” she told CNN from a secure location in Kyiv.
“But now basically it’s not about politics, it’s about survival,” she added.
Stefanishyna said Putin is failing in the war because “the chain of command which disinforms him, and the senior management around, shows that they know nothing about our nation.”
“I’m absolutely sure that he’s uncomfortable in every moment that he’s sitting in his bomb shelter,” she said, adding, “he fails in each of his assessments.”
While US officials say the White House does not support instituting a no-fly zone over Ukraine or supplying the Ukrainian Air Force with new fighter aircraft, Biden appeared to shift his stance on Putin.
“I think he is a war criminal,” Biden said to reporters after remarks at the White House on Wednesday. He and other government officials had previously stopped short of saying war crimes were being committed in Ukraine, citing ongoing investigations into whether that term could be used.
CNN’s Tim Lister and Oleksandra Ochman in Lviv, Sam Kiley and Gianluca Mezzofiore contributed to this report.