Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – About 300 people were killed in a Russian air strike last week on the Mariupol Theater, which was used as a shelter, Ukrainian authorities said on Friday that it would make it the deadliest known attack on civilians in the war.

Meanwhile, which could mean a significant narrowing of Moscow’s military targets, the United States has said Russian forces appear to have halted, at least for now, a ground offensive aimed at capturing Kyiv’s capital and are focusing more on fighting for control of the Donbass region. in the south-east of the country – this shift seemed to be confirmed by the Kremlin.

The Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian General Staff, Colonel-General Sergei Rudskaya, said that the main task of the first stage of the operation – reducing Ukraine’s combat capability – was “generally fulfilled”, allowing Russian troops to focus on “the main goal”. liberation of Donbass “.

It would seem that a shift in Moscow’s military goals – a few weeks after Vladimir Putin denied Ukraine the right to exist as a sovereign country and looked prone to seizing many of its cities and overthrowing the government – may indicate a possible strategy for Russia’s tougher exit. resistance and greater losses than expected.

Donbass is a predominantly Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, where Russian-backed separatists have been at war with Ukrainian forces since 2014 and where many residents support Moscow.

In Mariupol, the bloodshed in the theater has led to accusations that Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, intentionally or indiscriminately.

For days, the government in the besieged and destroyed port city could not count the losses from the March 16 bombing of the grand Mariupol Drama Theater, where hundreds of people were said to be hiding. repel an air attack.

Announcing on Friday the death toll in its Telegram-channel, city officials citing eyewitnesses. But it was not immediately clear how the witnesses came to the figure and whether the staff of the Ministry of Emergencies finished excavating the ruins.

Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to US President Joe Biden, said on Friday that the explosion at the theater was “an absolute shock, especially given the fact that it was clearly a civilian target”. He said it shows “brazen disregard for the lives of innocent people.”

The scale of the destruction in Mariupol, where bodies were left unburied among funnels from bombs and hollowed-out buildings, made it difficult to obtain information.

But shortly after the attack, the Ukrainian parliament’s ombudsman said more than 1,300 people had taken refuge in the theater, many of them because their homes had been destroyed. The building had a basement bomb shelter, and some survivors of the attack came out from under the rubble.

“This is a barbaric war, and according to international conventions, deliberate attacks on civilians are war crimes,” said Mircea Joanna, NATO’s deputy secretary general.

He said Putin’s efforts to break Ukraine’s will to resist had the opposite effect: “In return, he gets an even more determined Ukrainian army and an increasingly united West in support of Ukraine.”

As the Russians continue to push the capital out of the air, they appear to have entered a “defensive point” near Kiev and are more focused on the Donbass, a senior US defense official said.

“They show no sign of wanting to move to Kyiv from the ground,” the official said on condition of anonymity to describe the US military’s internal military assessment.

The official also said the United States had seen signs that Russia was beginning to attract Russian soldiers to Georgia for deployment in Ukraine. The official did not offer figures or deadlines for the move.

The UK Ministry of Defense said Ukrainian troops had counterattacked and were able to retake cities and defensive positions up to 35 kilometers (22 miles) east of Kiev as Russian troops retreated to their overly extended supply lines. In the south, logistical problems and resistance from Ukrainians are slowing down Russians as they seek to move west toward the port of Odessa, the ministry said.

The Russian military said 1,351 servicemen had been killed and 3,825 wounded in Ukraine, but it was not immediately clear whether these were pro-Moscow separatist forces fighting in the east or others outside the Defense Ministry, such as the National Guard. Earlier this week, NATO estimated that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in four weeks of fighting.

Moscow is tightening the noose of sanctions around the Russian economy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Western pressure was equal to a “total war.”

“And the goals are not hidden,” he said. “They are declared publicly – to destroy, break, destroy, stifle the economy of Russia and Russia as a whole.”

As for civilians, in Ukrainian cities and towns, which increasingly resemble the ruins left by Russian forces during their campaigns in Syria and Chechnya, the grief is becoming more serious.

In the village of Yasnagorodka, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Kiev, Russian troops stationed there earlier in the week appear to have been repulsed as part of a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The explosion damaged the tower of the village church, at the main crossroads lay in ruins. Strong explosions and queues were heard.

“You can see for yourself what happened here. People were killed here. Our soldiers died here. There were fights, ”a resident of Yasnahorodka Valery Puzakov said.

Tens of thousands of people left Mariupol last week, most of them in personal cars through dozens of Russian checkpoints.

“Unfortunately, there is nothing left of Mariupol,” said Yauhen Sakirko, who was among those waiting for the evacuation train in Zaporizhia, the city center and intermediate station for refugees closest to Mariupol. “There have been explosions in the last week that I have never heard before.”

42-year-old Oksana Abramova said she was in pain for those who remained in the city, who had been cut off due to shelling of cellular, radio and TV towers and did not have the means to escape.

“I keep thinking about how they are, where they are. Still hiding, alive? Or maybe they are gone, ”she said.

In Kiev, the main crematorium in the capital is piling up the ashes of the dead, as so many relatives left, and the urns remained unclaimed. And the northern city of Chernihiv is almost cut off.

Chernihiv lost its main road bridge over the Desna as a result of a Russian air strike this week. After that, the shelling damaged the pedestrian bridge, leaving the rest of the city without electricity, water and heat, authorities said. It is estimated that more than half of Chernihiv’s pre-war population of 285,000 fled.

In other events:

– The United States and the European Union have announced further economic pressure on Russia: a partnership to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and dry up the billions of dollars the Kremlin receives from fuel sales.

—Russia said that from Friday it would offer safe passage to 67 ships from 15 foreign countries that ran aground in Ukrainian ports due to the danger of shelling and mines.

– The International Atomic Energy Agency said that the Ukrainian authorities said that the Russian shelling hindered the rotation of workers at the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which requires constant monitoring of spent fuel.

– The Russian military said that they had destroyed the massive fuel base of Ukraine, which was used to protect the Kiev region, and the ships fired a volley of cruise missiles, according to Interfax. The video on social networks shows a huge fireball near the capital.

For vulnerable people – the elderly, children and others who are unable to join the millions of people heading west – the country, once known as the breadbasket of the world, is facing a shortage of food.

Hundreds of panicked people hid in the subway in the incessantly shelled Kharkiv, and an ambulance hospital was filled with wounded soldiers and civilians.

This week, mostly elderly women lined up to gather food and other immediate supplies as explosions erupted in the distance. Silent with anticipation, the young girl watched as a volunteer knife cut through a giant piece of cheese, cutting thick slices, one for each hungry man.

Anna Spitsyna has claimed responsibility for delivering food aid from the Ukrainian Red Cross. Those who waited received a piece of cheese, dipped it in plastic bags, which people in the queue kept open.

“Among those who stayed, there are people who can walk on their own, but many of those who can’t walk are elderly,” said Anna. “All these people need diapers, blankets and food.”


“Rose” reported from the Ukrainian Kharkiv. Associated Press writer Robert Burns of Washington and journalists from around the world contributed to this report.


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