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More than 300 people died when Russian air strikes hit a theatre in the eastern city of Mariupol last week, Ukrainian officials said on Friday, although it was unknown how the final tally was reached.
Russia has denied hitting the building where more than 1,000 people were sheltering in the basement.
In a vain attempt to protect those inside from missiles and air strikes that Russia has continued to rain down on Ukraine's cities, an enormous sign reading “CHILDREN” in Russian had been posted outside the grand, columned theatre to make it visible from the air.
The final casualty count from the March 16 attack has taken days to produce due to the continuing siege of the city.
The report from the city government of Mariupol on Friday cited witnesses to the strike but the officials admitted that it was still not possible to determine the exact death toll.
“From witnesses comes information that about 300 people died in the Mariupol Drama Theatre as a result of the bombing by a Russian plane,” the Mariupol city council said in a statement on Friday.
“Up until the very last moment, one does not want to believe this horror. But the words of those who were inside the building at the time of this terrorist act say the opposite.”
The head of the UN human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, said that her team had not been able to obtain enough information to verify the death toll.
“We are getting less and less information from there [Mariupol] and in that specific case, we are still trying to verify the details,” she told journalists in Geneva via video link.
Ukrainian officials have said that about 130 people were rescued from the rubble and that the theatre basement had withstood the attack.
The scale of devastation in Mariupol, where bodies have lain unburied in bomb craters and buildings have been hollowed out by relentless attacks, has made information difficult to obtain.
But soon after the attack, the Ukrainian Parliament’s human rights commissioner said more than 1,300 people had taken cover in the theatre, many of them because their homes had been destroyed in Russia’s siege.
The building had a basement bomb shelter and some survivors did emerge from the rubble after the attack.
The new reported death toll came a day after US President Joe Biden and allied leaders promised that more military aid for Ukraine was coming.
At an emergency Nato summit in Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded with the western allies via video for planes, tanks, rockets, air defence systems and other weapons, saying his country is “defending our common values”.
But Nato nations are reluctant, fearing that providing planes and tanks and instituting a no-fly zone in Ukraine’s airspace could increase the risk of being drawn into direct conflict with Russia.