(UPDATED) KYIV, Ukraine: About 300 people were killed in the Russian airstrike last week on a Mariupol theater that was being used as a shelter, Ukrainian authorities said Friday in what would make it the war’s deadliest known attack on civilians yet.
The bloodshed at the theater fueled allegations Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, whether deliberately or by indiscriminate fire.
Meanwhile, in what could signal an important narrowing of Moscow’s war aims, the US said Russian forces appear to have halted, at least for now, their ground offensive aimed at capturing the capital, Kyiv, and are concentrating more on gaining control of the Donbas region in the country’s southeast — a shift the Kremlin seemed to confirm.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy again appealed to Russia to negotiate an end to the war, but pointedly said Ukraine would not agree to give up any of its territory for the sake of peace.
“The territorial integrity of Ukraine should be guaranteed,” he said in a nightly video address to the nation. “That is, the conditions must be fair, for the Ukrainian people will not accept them otherwise.”
For days, the Mariupol government was unable to give a casualty count for the March 16 bombardment of the grand, columned Mariupol Drama Theater, where hundreds of people were said to be taking cover, the word “CHILDREN” printed in Russian in huge white letters on the ground outside to ward off an aerial attack.
In announcing the death toll on its Telegram channel Friday, the city government cited eyewitnesses. But it was not immediately clear how witnesses arrived at the figure or whether emergency workers had finished excavating the ruins.
US President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the theater bombing was an “absolute shock, particularly given the fact that it was so clearly a civilian target.” He said it showed “a brazen disregard for the lives of innocent people” in the besieged port city.
The Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner said soon after the attack that more than 1,300 people had taken shelter in the theater, many of them because their homes were destroyed. The building had a basement bomb shelter, and some survivors did emerge from the rubble after the attack.
“This is a barbaric war, and according to international conventions, deliberate attacks on civilians are war crimes,” said Mircea Geoana, NATO’s deputy secretary general.
He said Putin’s efforts to break Ukraine’s will to resist are having the opposite effect: “What he’s getting in response is an even more determined Ukrainian army and an ever more united West in supporting Ukraine.”
While the Russians continue to pound the capital from the air, they appear to have gone into a “defensive crouch” outside Kyiv and are focused more on the Donbas, a senior US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment.
“They don’t show any signs of being willing to move on Kyiv from the ground,” the official said.
In comments that seemed to corroborate a change in Moscow’s military goals, Col.-Gen Sergei Rudskoi, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, said the main objective of the first stage of the operation — reducing Ukraine’s fighting capacity — has “generally been accomplished,” allowing Russian forces to focus on “the main goal, the liberation of Donbas.”
The Donbas is the largely Russian-speaking eastern part of the country where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 and where many residents desire close ties to Moscow. Its coal-mining and industrial Donetsk and Luhansk regions are recognized by Russia as independent.