'It's a miracle': Survivors found after heinous Russian attack

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Rescue workers were searching for survivors in the rubble of a theatre in the besieged city of Mariupol on Thursday (local time), after Ukraine said a powerful Russian air strike hit the building where hundreds of people had been sheltering from the war.

The port city is encircled by Russian forces and has seen fierce bombardment. A statement from the city council said that about 30,000 residents had managed to escape so far, but more than 350,000 remained stuck there.

"The heart is breaking from what Russia does to our people, our Mariupol, and our Donetsk region," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a late night address on Wednesday, after referring to the theatre attack.

The city council said hundreds of people, mostly women, children and the elderly, had been hiding in the theatre and a nearby swimming pool building because of heavy shelling.

"Information about the victims is still being clarified," it said.

The theatre was bombed despite signs written on the ground saying children were inside. Source: Reuters
The theatre was bombed despite signs written on the ground saying children were inside. Source: Reuters
People walk near a block of flats, which was destroyed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine March 17, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
People walk near a block of flats, which was destroyed during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine on March 17. Source: Reuters

'It's a miracle': Survivors pulled from the wreckage

Earlier, Petro Andrushchenko, an adviser to the city's mayor, said some people survived the blast and the bomb shelter had held. Emergency workers were looking for them in the rubble.

Tetyana Ignatchenko, spokesperson of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration, said there had been 1000 people inside the Mariupol theatre a week ago.

"But after that, many people were able to escape. We can't say exactly how many people were in the theatre. We can only assume 400-500. Half of them."

A Ukrainian parliamentarian said 130 civilians have far been rescued from the theatre.

"Good news that we need so urgently. The air raid shelter under the theatre of Mariupol has stood up to it. Around 130 people have already been saved," Olga Stefanishyna wrote on Facebook.

"It's a miracle," she said, describing how rescue workers were removing rubble to free other survivors.

Russia has denied bombing the theatre.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday that the allegation that Russia had bombed the theatre was a "lie", and repeated Kremlin denials that Russian forces have targeted civilians since the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

"Russia's armed forces don't bomb towns and cities," she told in a briefing.

Hunger in a bunker

Satellite images of the theatre taken earlier this week before it was struck show a large structure with a red roof and the Russian word for "children" painted in large white letters on the tarmac at the front and back.

Mariupol council said the physical damage to the city had been "enormous". It estimated that around 80% of the city's homes had been destroyed, of which almost 30% was beyond repair.

On the outskirts of town, Reuters reporters saw people leaving on foot and in cars, some pushing their belongings in shopping carts. In the background there were badly burned and bombed apartment blocks, some still smouldering.

A boy stays at a temporary accommodation centre for evacuees, including residents of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, in the building of a local sports school in Taganrog in the Rostov region, Russia March 17, 2022. REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov
A boy stays at a temporary accommodation centre for evacuees, including residents of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Reuters

Oksana Zalavska, 42, fled Mariupol two days ago and is now in Zaporizhzhia. The mother of a three-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl had been staying in an overcrowded bomb shelter where adults ate one tiny meal a day as rations were low.

"Now I know everything about starvation in 2022," she told Reuters.

The International Committee of the Red Cross called on the warring parties on Thursday to let people leave Mariupol safely and to allow aid in.

Up to 40 ICRC staff and their families had to flee the port along with other civilians on Wednesday, because they had "no operational capacity any more," the organisation's head Peter Maurer told a news conference.

Zalavska and her family tried to escape Mariupol once before, on March 6, when they heard a safe corridor had opened. But she said Russian shelling continued and so they rushed back to their shelter. On the second attempt they pushed on.

"To tell the truth we were ready to die," she said. "We could die in a bomb shelter or we could die trying to get to freedom. We did not have a choice."

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