Russian forces deliberately dropped two 1,000-plus-pound bombs on the Mariupol theater that was being used as a shelter March 16, resulting in a mass killing of civilians that amounted to a war crime, according to evidence cited in a report by the rights group Amnesty International released Thursday.
Amnesty said there was no indication the theater was a base of operations for Ukrainian soldiers but rather served as refuge for civilians seeking protection from weeks of relentless bombardment.
The report comes days after a Russian airstrike in a shopping mall on the central Ukraine city of Kremenchuk killed at least 18 and wounded dozens, drawing international condemnation. Russian authorities have denied targeting the mall.
The Amnesty team interviewed 52 survivors and first-hand witnesses, about half of whom were either in the theater or nearby. Using satellite imagery from that morning, the organization determined the sky was consistently clear enough for any pilot to see the word “CHILDREN” written in huge Cyrillic letters in the building’s front and back.
Accounts of the death toll have varied. Mariupol officials initially estimated around 300; an Associated Press investigation determined closer to 600 may have been killed. The Amnesty report could only confirm a dozen deaths while adding “it is likely that many additional fatalities remain unreported.”
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►The Treasury Department said Thursday it has blocked a $1 billion Delaware-based trust connected to sanctioned Russian oligarch Suleiman Abusaidovich Kerimov, who’s also linked to a $325 million superyacht the US seized earlier this month.
►British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “toxic masculinity” helped trigger the war in Ukraine, saying that if Russian President Vladimir Putin were a woman, “I really don’t think he would’ve embarked on a crazy, macho war of invasion and violence in the way that he has.”
►Dmitry Medvedev, deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, cautioned Thursday that Moscow could see Western sanctions as a justification for war, calling the restrictions “boorish and cynical” and bordering on “economic war.”
►The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which remained in power thanks to the 2015 intervention of Russian forces amid a civil war, said it will recognize the “independence and sovereignty” of Ukraine’s separatists eastern republics in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.
Russia pulls forces out of strategic Snake Island
Russia withdrew its forces Thursday from Snake Island, a strategically important island that sits along a busy shipping lane in the Black Sea and has come to symbolize Ukrainian resistance to the invasion.
The island gained international attention in February when a Russian warship demanded Ukrainian troops surrender or face bombardment and the soldiers responded with expletives. The soldiers were captured and later freed during a prisoner exchange.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gene. Igor Konashenkov called the withdrawal from Zmiyinyy (Snake) Island off Ukraine’s port of Odesa a “goodwill gesture” to demonstrate that the country is not interfering with the United Nations’ attempts to secure space for Ukraine to export agricultural products. Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russia of blockading ports and exacerbating a global food crisis.
After the Russians took control of Snake Island, the Ukrainian military relentlessly attacked their forces. Ukraine’s military said Russian troops fled the island after being bombarded by Ukrainian artillery and missile strikes.
Biden previews $800 million more in military aid to Ukraine
President Biden said Thursday the US will announce $800 million in additional military aid to Ukraine in the next few days. The assistance will include new advanced air defense systems, more artillery, counter-battery radars and more ammunition, Biden said at a press conference during the conclusion of NATO’s annual meeting in Madrid.
“We are going to stick with Ukraine, and all of the alliance are going to stick with Ukraine as long as it takes to in fact make sure they are not defeated,” he said.
Biden used the same terms when asked Thursday how long Americans can expected to pay for the elevated gas prices that have resulted from the war and measures to hold Russia accountable.
“As long as it takes, so Russia cannot in fact defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine,” he said.
Earlier in the summit, NATO declared Russia the “most significant and direct threat” to its members’ peace and security, vowing to bolster support for Ukraine in the conflict.
NATO summit closes with vow to ‘protect every inch’ of its territory
Amid the threat of Russian aggression spilling beyond Ukraine, the head of NATO said it was imperative for the growing alliance to remain united.
NATO’s three-day summit in Madrid closed Thursday with encouraging signs after Turkey dropped its objection to Sweden and Finland being invited to join, but also the realization that, in the words of Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “We live in a more dangerous world ” because of the Russian invasion.
He sent a strong message to the Kremlin, which hoped the war would help splinter the bloc, saying that it would “protect every inch of NATO territory.”
Putin still aims to claim most of Ukraine, US intelligence chief says
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not changed his goals in Ukraine even though they don’t seem realistic, the top US intelligence official said Wednesday.
Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, foresees a long, “grinding struggle” in which Russia retains the parts of the eastern Donbas region it already controls and consolidates its hold over the south by the fall but likely doesn’t get beyond that.
Speaking at an event in Washington, Haines said Putin “has effectively the same political goals that he had previously, which is to say that he wants to take most of Ukraine” and push it away from NATO.
“We perceive a disconnect between Putin’s near-term military objectives in this area and his military’s capacity, a kind of mismatch between his ambitions and what the military is able to accomplish,” she said.
Russia continues to make incremental advances in Lysychansk, the last city in Luhansk province it doesn’t command. The invading forces and their separatist allies control 95% of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk, which make up the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas.
Contributing: The Associated Press