Ukraine theatre hit by airstrike where hundreds were sheltering had ‘children’ written on pavement in Russian

Number of casualties still unknown but between 1,000 and 1,2000 civilians thought to have been inside

Related video: Mariupol maternity hospital lays in ruins after Russian airstrike

Satellite imagery shows a destroyed theatre in Ukraine where civilians were sheltering had the word “children” written in Russian on the pavement outside the building.

Russian forces dropped a bomb on the theatre where more than 1,000 civilians – including women and children – were sheltering in the besieged city of Mariupol, local officials said on Wednesday.

The number of people killed in the latest alleged civilian attack by Vladimir Putin’s forces was unclear on Wednesday evening, but Mariupol’s deputy mayor Sergei Orlov said earlier that between 1,000 and 1,200 people originally sought refuge inside the building and so could have been inside.

A striking satellite image, taken by Maxar Technologies two days before the air strike on 14 March, shows that the Russian word for “children” (дети) was written in large white letters in front of and behind the Donetsk Regional Theatre of Drama.

This suggests it would have been clear from above that civilians were sheltering inside it.

A statement from Ukraine’s foreign ministry said: “The bomb strike demolished the central part of the theatre building, causing large numbers of people to be buried under the debris.

“The assessment of the exact number of persons affected is currently impossible due to ongoing shelling.

“By delivering a purposeful bomb attack to the place of mass gathering of civilians Russia has committed another war crime.”

A satellite image of the Donetsk Regional Theatre of Drama, taken days before the bombing, shows the Russian word for ‘children’ written in large white letters in front of and behind the building

However, Russia’s defence ministry swiftly denied it carried out the assault, according to the RIA news agency. Instead it accused the Azov Battalion, a far-right Ukrainian militia, of blowing it up.

It did not give evidence to back up the claim.

The Kremlin has consistently denied its troops are targeting innocent Ukrainians, though officials in Ukraine have challenged these claims, particularly after a maternity hospital, also in Mariupol, was targeted last week.

Mariupol council posted an image of the city’s theatre, showing the heavy damage it sustained during the attack. Russian forces had “purposefully and cynically destroyed the drama theatre in the heart of Mariupol”, it said.

This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Meanwhile, Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional administration, accused Russia of “committing war crimes” in Mariupol by carrying out the attack.

“The number of victims is impossible to count,” he said in a Facebook post, alongside images of the demolished theatre.

He added: “Each of those who gave and followed orders will be punished!”

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