- UN human rights office says 1,081 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since invasion began.
- City of Chernihiv cut off, surrounded by Russian forces, regional governor says.
- U.S. finalizes agreement to help Europe ease its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
About 300 people died in a Russian airstrike last week on a theatre being used as a bomb shelter in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, the city’s government said Friday, citing eyewitnesses.
When the theatre was struck March 16, an enormous inscription reading “CHILDREN” was posted outside in Russian, intended to be visible from the skies above.
It was not immediately clear whether emergency workers had finished excavating the site or how the eyewitnesses arrived at the death toll. Soon after the airstrike, Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, said more than 1,300 people had been sheltering in the building.
Mariupol has been the scene of some of the worst devastation of the war. The eastern port has been under siege since the invasion’s early days. Tens of thousands of people are still believed to be trapped inside with no access to food, medicine, power or heat.
Mariupol’s city government says the Kremlin’s main political party has opened a political office in a shopping mall on the outskirts of the besieged city. According to the post on the city’s Telegram channel, the United Russia office is distributing promotional materials as well as cellphone cards for an operator that functions in the nearby Russia-backed separatist regions.
Mariupol’s communication links have been all but severed since the siege began in early March. Cellphone, TV and radio towers have been targeted in Russian airstrikes and artillery barrages.
The UN human rights office said on Friday that it had confirmed 1,081 civilian deaths and 1,707 injuries in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, noting that the real toll was likely considerably higher.
UN human rights monitors are working to verify reports of additional deaths in places of intense clashes in the regions of Sumy, Kharkiv and the region of Donestsk, where the city of Mariupol is located, the statement said.
The Russian news agency Interfax, citing Russia’s defence ministry, said on Friday that 1,351 Russian soldiers have died since the start of the military operation, while 825 soldiers have been wounded.
In the shelled city of Kharkiv, mostly elderly women came to collect food and other urgent supplies. In the capital of Kyiv, ashes of the dead are piling up at the main crematorium because so many relatives have left, leaving urns unclaimed.
A month into their assault, Russian forces have failed to capture any major Ukrainian city but have instead been bombarding and encircling them, driving nearly a quarter of the country’s 44 million people from their homes.
Volodymyr Borysenko, mayor of Boryspol, an eastern suburb where Kyiv’s main airport is located, said 20,000 civilians had left the area, answering a call to clear out so Ukrainian troops could push the Russians farther back.
Conditions worsen in Chernihiv
The northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv has in effect been cut off by Russian forces, the regional governor said on Friday.
“The city has been conditionally, operationally surrounded by the enemy,” Viacheslav Chaus said on national television, adding that the city was under fire from artillery and warplanes.
A local government official in Chernihiv said a “catastrophe” was unfolding as Russian troops deliberately target sites where food is being stored. An airstrike there this week destroyed a crucial bridge.
City council secretary Olexander Lomako estimated that more than 130,000 people remain in the city, which had a pre-war population of 285,000, but that Ukrainian troops were still holding on to the city.
The Ukrainian military said its troops were still hindering Russian forces trying to fight their way into the capital Kyiv, about 150 kilometres south of Chernihiv.
Elsewhere, Russian forces fired two missiles late Thursday at a Ukrainian military unit on the outskirts of Dnipro, the fourth-largest city in the country, the regional emergency services said. The strikes destroyed buildings and set off two fires, it said. The number of dead and wounded was unclear.
Russia’s military claimed on Friday that it destroyed a massive Ukrainian fuel base used to supply the Kyiv region’s defences, with ships firing a salvo of cruise missiles, according to the Interfax news agency. Videos on social media showed an enormous fireball explosion near the capital.
For civilians, the misery has become unrelenting. Kyiv, like other cities, has seen its population dramatically reduced in the vast refugee crisis that has seen more than 10 million displaced and nearly 3.7 million fleeing the country entirely. In the capital, over 260 civilians have died and more than 80 buildings been destroyed since the start of the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged his country to keep up its military defence and not stop “even for a minute.” Zelensky used his nightly video address on Thursday to rally Ukrainians to “move toward peace, move forward.”
“With every day of our defence, we are getting closer to the peace that we need so much. We can’t stop, even for a minute, for every minute determines our fate, our future, whether we will live.” He said thousands of people, including 128 children, died in the first month of the war. Across the country, 230 schools and 155 kindergartens have been destroyed. Cities and villages “lie in ashes,” he said.
Plan to undercut Russian energy
With Ukrainian soldiers battling Russia’s invasion force to a near stalemate in many places and the president urging people to remain steadfast, the United States and the European Union have moved to slowly squeeze off the cash flow the Kremlin gets from the sales of fossil fuels.
The U.S. and EU on Friday announced a new partnership to reduce the continent’s reliance on Russian energy, a step top officials characterized as the start of a years-long initiative to further isolate Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden asserted that Russian President Vladimir Putin uses energy to “coerce and manipulate his neighbours” and uses the profits from its sale to “drive his war machine.”
Under the plan, the U.S. and other nations will increase liquefied natural gas exports to Europe by 15 billion cubic metres this year, though U.S. officials were unable to say exactly which countries will provide the extra energy this year. Even larger shipments would be delivered in the future.
Biden was set to discuss the issue further with Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Union’s executive arm, before leaving for Poland, the final leg of his four-day trip.
After meeting with his global counterparts in Paris this week, Canada’s natural resources minister pledged to pump out more oil and gas to alleviate the energy crisis in Europe.
Russia facing ‘total war’ from West
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday said Russia is facing total war declared by the West. He said the goal was “to destroy, break, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy, and Russia on the whole.”
During the first month of what Russia describes as a “special military operation” in Ukraine, the West imposed tough measures targeting Russia’s economy and financial system as well as Putin and Russian oligarchs.
Despite that, Lavrov said Russia was not isolated.
“We have many friends, allies, partners in the world, a huge number of associations in which Russia is working with countries of all continents, and we will continue to do so,” Lavrov said. He went on to say that the vast majority of states won’t join the Western sanctions policy against Russia.