Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of further atrocities in the besieged city of Mariupol, including an airstrike on a theatre where hundreds of displaced people were believed to have been sheltering and a strike on a swimming pool where pregnant women and young children had gathered. Russian forces were also accused of shelling of a convoy of cars of civilians fleeing the city.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said late on Wednesday that the strike on the theatre was deliberate and that the death toll was still unknown, adding: “Our hearts are broken by what Russia is doing to our people”.
He also compared the siege of the city to that of Leningrad in the second world war.
Mariupol has been facing a humanitarian catastrophe for days, and Russia continued to rain down fire on it and other Ukrainian cities on Wednesday, even as the two sides projected optimism over efforts at peace talks to negotiate an end to the fighting.
There was no immediate confirmation of numbers of deaths or injuries in what the Mariupol city council said was a “bomb on a building where hundreds of peaceful Mariupol residents were hiding.” “We don’t know if there are any survivors,” one witness said. “The bomb shelter is also covered with debris … there are both adults and children there.”
About 1,000 civilians were allegedly hiding inside the theatre, which was designated as a shelter for the displaced, including children and elderly people.
Later Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of Donetsk regional administration, claimed Russians had also targeted the Neptune swimming pool. “Now there are pregnant women and women with children under the rubble there,” he said in a post on Telegram. “It is impossible to establish the number of casualties from these strikes.”
A witness who posted a video of the aftermath of the attack said the pool had been destroyed and efforts were under way to rescue one pregnant woman trapped in the rubble.
As Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a “war criminal”, local authorities in Mariupol posted an image of the city’s theatre showing it had sustained heavy damage in the attack. Russian forces had “purposefully and cynically destroyed the Drama Theater in the heart of Mariupol”, it said. Moscow denies targeting civilians and Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had not struck the building, RIA news agency said.
A satellite photograph from 14 March and released on Wednesday by Maxar Technologies showed the word “children” in large Russian script painted on the ground outside the red-roofed theatre building.
Ukraine’s ministry of defence has described Mariupol as the worst front of the war. Mass graves have been dug on the outskirts of the city and the bodies of men, women and children have been left on the streets. More than 400,000 of its inhabitants are either without or with dwindling access to running water, food and medical supplies.
Local officials have said more than 2,500 have been killed. But the reality is that, because of the shelling, the dead cannot be counted.
Ukrainian officials also accused Russian forces of shelling a convoy of cars of civilians fleeing the city, wounding at least five people, including a child.
Local officials shared photos and videos of the aftermath of the alleged attack. “Heavy artillery of the enemy forces fired on a convoy of civilians moving along the highway towards Zaporizhzhia,” the governor of the region, Oleksandr Starukh, said in an online post.
The Ukrainian military also reported the strike in a separate statement. Work was under way to confirm the number of casualties, it said. Authorities also shared a photo of a child it said had been wounded in the attack.
More than 400 people, whom Ukrainian authorities have compared to hostages, remain trapped in a Mariupol hospital seized by Russian forces.
“It is impossible to get out of the hospital,” one employee said on the Telegram social media platform. “They shoot hard, we sit in the basement. Cars have not been able to drive to the hospital for two days. High-rise buildings are burning around … Russians rushed 400 people from neighbouring houses to our hospital. We can’t leave.”
Officials have told families to leave their dead outside in the streets because holding funerals is too dangerous.
Witnesses tell of a city in chaos, under constant bombardment, which is becoming more and more difficult to escape. Thousands of people are trying to reach the city of Zaporizhzhia, where refugees are taking shelter, but according to the Ukrainian authorities, the Russians are trying to prevent citizens from fleeing.
The regional governor, Alexander Starukh, wrote on Telegram that “Russian rockets have landed in the area of the Zaporozhye-2 railway station”.
The right bank of Mariupol, which is divided by a river, is at the centre of a vicious battle between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
The left bank is under Russian occupation and almost completely cut off. One of the two bridges from the left bank has been destroyed and those in contact with relatives inside the city say the second bridge is the scene of intense fighting.
A senior Ukrainian official said it was an “open question” whether a “humanitarian corridor” would be opened on Wednesday to evacuate more civilians. So far, about 20,000 people have managed to leave the encircled port city, but only if they have access to cars.
According to one woman whose parents are trapped in the town, 2,000 vehicles left on Tuesday and about 500 on Wednesday. She has not heard from her parents for four days. The Ukrainian authorities have told those with transport to leave Mariupol, but most of the trapped citizens either do not have cars or their cars have been destroyed by the shelling, three people with relatives inside the city told the Guardian.
A number of witnesses trapped in the city say the Russians are bombing radio and telecommunications towers, meaning that contacting people there has become increasingly difficult. Relatives of those living in the city desperately searching every day for news about their loved ones have been unable to find a phone signal.
“From what I’ve heard from people I’ve managed to speak to, they shot at telecommunications masts, and that’s why there has been no signal, not because the electricity was cut off,” said Iryna Bakazheriva, whose family members are stuck on the right bank of Mariupol.
She was contacted by a neighbour who left the basement and climbed to the eighth floor of his building, where a signal was available. “They are waiting for official information about an evacuation, but there is none,” said Bakazheriva.
Hundreds of people left homeless have gathered in a large public building and have been crammed for days in the basement. “Some have developed sepsis from shrapnel in the body,” Anastasiya Ponomareva, a 39-year-old teacher who fled the city, at the start of the war, but was still in contact with friends there, told the BBC. “Things are very serious.”
“People who managed to hide in underground shelters basically live there permanently,” she said. “They practically cannot leave at all.”
Maryna Hammershmidt, whose elderly parents, sister, nieces and nephews are on the left bank, said she had heard no news from them for two weeks. On Tuesday, Hammershmidt’s sister put a sim card into an old analogue mobile phone and managed to call her.
Hammershmidt’s sister said she and the rest of her family were living in a bomb shelter with 300 other people on the left bank. They have no access to transport. Her sister said a group had tried to leave, but the car in front of them was hit by a missile, so they returned.
Hammershmidt has written to all the officials she can think of in Poland and Ukraine to increase pressure to evacuate those trapped inside the city. “They’ve abandoned a city of half a million people,” she said. “My mother is 78 and my father is 80, they are sitting in a basement. My sister is with a baby who is just one month old.”
“The left bank is completely cut off, there’s about 80,000 people
living there,” she continued. “It’s a living hell. When are they going to evacuate people?”
In a Telegram chat where about 100,000 citizens of Mariupol are collecting testimonies from relatives and friends in the city, users have reported the “the police academy is completely occupied by the Russians”.
Taking Mariupol, which is 34 miles from Russia’s border, would mark a strategic breakthrough for Vladimir Putin.
The city lies between territory held by Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region and the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Moscow in 2014 and from where it has launched its assault on key southern towns in Ukraine.