A Russian strike on a theatre sheltering civilians in Ukraine’s besieged city of Mariupol badly wounded one person but did not kill anyone, authorities said Friday, as deadly fighting raged on elsewhere across the country.
Rescuers picked through the rubble to find hundreds of civilians feared trapped in the wreckage of the theatre, as both sides in the war and their allies traded accusations of war crimes three weeks into the Russian invasion.
With world powers manoeuvring to respond to a new conflict in Europe, the United States demanded China get tough with its “war criminal” allies in the Kremlin.
Putin insisted Russian forces were doing “everything possible” not to target civilians, though action on the ground such as the strike on the theatre belies this claim.
Russian missiles struck an aircraft repair site close to Lviv’s airport in Ukraine’s far west, extending the war to a relatively unscathed region near the border with NATO member Poland.
The Russian defence ministry said in a statement the strike destroyed an area housing Ukrainian fighter jets, munitions stores and military equipment.
No fatalities were reported in that strike, but early-morning strikes took lives across other Ukrainian cities.
Putin meanwhile held a triumphalist rally in Moscow despite signs that his ground offensive is flagging.
Authorities in Kyiv said one person was killed when a Russian rocket struck residential tower blocks in the capital’s northwestern suburbs. They said a school and playground were also hit.
A body lay under a sheet, near a huge crater, after the blast blew out every one of the school’s windows.
Fourteen-year-old Anna-Maria Romanchuk’s lip trembled after the missile exploded outside her school, the Gymnasium No. 34 Lydia.
“Scary,” she said in halting English, her face pale with shock as her mother comforted her. “I just hope that everything will be OK.”
Ukraine had feared the biggest single toll yet from Russia’s invasion in the port city of Mariupol, after the Drama Theatre was bombed on Wednesday despite signs proclaiming that children were sheltering there.
Officials said that up to 1,000 people may have been taking refuge in a bomb shelter underneath the theatre.
Ukraine’s President Voldymyr Zelensky had vowed to continue the rescue operation in Mariupol “despite shelling” by Russian forces that has reduced the southern city to smoking ruins.
‘We only want peace’
The indiscriminate fire unleashed on Mariupol is one of several instances in Ukraine that led US President Joe Biden this week to label Putin a “war criminal” — to the Kremlin’s fury.
Biden held his first call with President Xi Jinping since November, hoping to persuade China’s leader to give up any idea of bailing out Russia after the West imposed biting sanctions on Putin’s regime.
Xi told Biden that war was “in no one’s interest”, while China and the United States should “shoulder international responsibilities”, according to Chinese state media.
For Zelensky, the primary responsibility remains national survival, as he addressed Russian mothers in an earlier video message.
“We didn’t want this war. We only want peace,” he said. “And we want you to love your children more than you fear your authorities.”
Putin, however, has been taking no chances with domestic dissent in Russia — shuttering independent media, arresting anti-war demonstrators and threatening jail terms of 15 years for anyone spreading “fake news”.
The Kremlin leader received a hero’s welcome from tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters in Moscow’s Luzhniki football stadium, many wearing the “Z” sign that features on Russian tanks invading Ukraine.
Putin, commemorating eight years since he annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea, said that invasion was justified to pull Crimea out of its “humiliating state”.
Today, he said, the much bigger invasion was “to rid these people from their suffering and genocide”.
Located 70 kilometres (45 miles) from the border, Lviv had until now largely escaped assault by Russian forces, and it has become a rear base for foreign diplomats fleeing Kyiv.
Valentin Vovchenko, 82, told AFP in Lviv: “We fled Kyiv because of the attacks but now they’ve started to hit here.”
In the hard-pressed eastern city of Kharkiv, Russian strikes demolished the six-storey building of a higher education institution, killing one person and leaving another trapped in the wreckage, officials said.
As Putin’s ground offensive has met with fierce Ukrainian resistance, Moscow has increasingly turned to indiscriminate air and long-range strikes.
Invaders ‘lack food, fuel’
Britain’s defence ministry said that on the ground, Russia was struggling to resupply its forward troops “with even basic essentials such as food and fuel”.
“Incessant Ukrainian counter-attacks are forcing Russia to divert large numbers of troops to defend their own supply lines. This is severely limiting Russia’s offensive potential,” it said.
Moscow’s diplomatic isolation deepened as Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania announced the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats, following in the steps of Bulgaria.
Historically, Ukraine has been a grain-exporting breadbasket to the world.
But the “devastating human catastrophe” now unfolding risks “extensive” economic fallout around the world, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other top global lenders warned.
“The entire global economy will feel the effects of the crisis through slower growth, trade disruptions, and steeper inflation,” they said.
‘Odessa holding on’
For many Ukrainians, Russia’s actions on the ground and from the air make a mockery of stop-start peace talks that have been proceeding this week.
In a call with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin on Friday accused Ukrainian authorities of “trying in every possible way to stall negotiations, putting forward more and more unrealistic proposals”.
Russia wants Ukraine to disarm and disavow all Western alliances — steps that Kyiv says would turn it into a vassal state of Moscow.
Western governments have condemned Putin’s vision for peace. In Odessa, on the Black Sea, civilians are braced for attack, with tanks deployed at road junctions and monuments covered in sandbags.
“Our beautiful Odessa,” said Lyudmila, an elderly woman wearing bright lipstick, as she looked forlornly at her city’s empty, barricaded streets.
“But thank God we are holding on! Everyone is holding on!”