NEBI KEN and ANDREO ROSE

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.

The bloodshed in the theater has sparked accusations that Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, intentionally or indiscriminately.

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 more focused on gaining control of Donbass. the region in the south-east of the country – this shift seems to have been confirmed by the Kremlin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has again asked Russia to agree to end the war, but has made it clear that Ukraine will not agree to give up its territory for peace.

“Ukraine’s territorial integrity must be guaranteed,” he said in a daily video message to the people. “This means that the conditions must be fair, because otherwise the Ukrainian people will not accept them.”

For several days, the Mariupol government 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. The word “CHILDREN” was printed in Russian in large white letters on the outside .

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, U.S. National Security Adviser to President Joe Biden, said the blast at the theater was “an absolute shock, especially given the fact that it was a clear civilian target.” He said it showed “brazen disregard for the lives of innocent people” in the besieged port city.

The Ukrainian parliament’s ombudsman said shortly after the attack that 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.”

While the Russians continue to push the capital out of the air, they seem to have gone into a “defensive squat” near Kiev and are more focused on the Donbass, a senior U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment. .

“They do not show any signs of desire to move to Kyiv from the ground,” – said the official.

Commenting on a change in Moscow’s military targets, Russian Deputy Chief of Staff Colonel-General Sergei Rudskaya said the main task of the first phase of the operation – reducing Ukraine’s combat capability – was “generally done”, allowing Russian forces to focus on the main goal is the liberation of Donbass ”.

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 want close ties with Moscow. Its coal and industrial Donetsk and Luhansk regions are recognized by Russia as independent.

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.

In fact, the Russians no longer fully control Kherson, the first major city to perish under Moscow’s forces, a senior U.S. defense official said. The official said that for the southern city of Ukrainians are fighting in heavy fighting. The Kremlin has denied losing full control.

The Russian military says 1,351 servicemen have been killed and 3,825 wounded in Ukraine, but it is unclear whether these are separatists 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.

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.

“You can see for yourself what happened here. People were killed here. Our soldiers died here, ”Yasnaharadka resident Valery Puzakov said.

As for Mariupol, there is “nothing left” of Mariupol, said Yauhen Sakirko, who was among those waiting for the evacuation train in Zaporizhia, an intermediate station for refugees from the destroyed port city. “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 ashes of the dead are piled up in the main crematorium, as so many relatives have left, and urns remained unclaimed. And the northern city of Chernihiv was almost cut off after Russian forces destroyed bridges, leaving people without electricity, water and heat, authorities said.

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.

“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 Spitsyna. “All these people need diapers, blankets and food.”

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“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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Follow the coverage of the AP war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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