Russian forces destroyed a theatre where hundreds of civilians were sheltering in the besieged city of Mariupol, local officials claimed on Wednesday, as Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin sharply escalated the rhetoric over the Ukraine war.
Some reports claimed that more than 1,000 people were seeking shelter in the theatre, although the number of casualties remained unknown and Moscow denied it had targeted the building.
President Biden called Mr Putin a “war criminal” and announced the United States would send an additional $800 million (£600 million) in military aid to Ukraine, including more anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons and drones.
In a sign of growing anger, Mr Putin lashed out at “scum and traitors” in Russia who he accused the west of using as a “fifth column” to destroy his country.
“Of course they (the west) will try to bet on the so-called fifth column, on traitors – on those who earn their money here, but live over there. Live, not in the geographical sense, but in the sense of their thoughts, their slavish thinking,” Mr Putin said.
“The collective west wants to divide our society… to provoke civil confrontation in Russia and to use its fifth column to strive to achieve its aim. And there is one aim – the destruction of Russia,” he said in a televised address.
Residents in the port city have described conditions there as a “living hell”, and have been left without food, power and forced to drink from radiators. Local officials say missile strikes and shelling had killed more than 2,300 people before the attack on the theatre.
Local authorities said Russian forces also took hundreds of people hostage at a Mariupol hospital and were using them as human shields. Bodies have been buried in trenches across the city and corpses lay in the streets.
The latest outrage occurred on a day of diplomatic developments.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared before the US Congress via videolink, invoking the Pearl Harbour and 9/11 attacks, and pleaded with America for more weapons and tougher sanctions against Russia, saying: “ We need you right now.”
International pressure against the Kremlin mounted and its isolation deepened as the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, ordered Russia to stop attacking Ukraine, though there was little hope it would comply. Also, the 47-nation Council of Europe, the continent’s foremost human rights body, expelled Russia.
Despite this, there were some hopes that a diplomatic solution could emerge to end the war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by the two sides, while President Zelensky said Russia’s demands for ending the war were becoming “more realistic”.
Hopes for diplomatic progress to end the war rose after the Ukrainain leader acknowledged on Tuesday, in the most explicit terms yet, that Ukraine is unlikely to realise its goal of joining NATO. Mr Putin has long depicted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations as a threat to Russia.
Mr Lavrov welcomed Zelenskyy’s comment and said “the businesslike spirit” starting to surface in the talks “gives hope that we can agree on this issue.”.
“A neutral status is being seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Lavrov said on Russian TV. “There are concrete formulations that in my view are close to being agreed.” Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said the sides were discussing a possible compromise for a Ukraine with a smaller, non-aligned military.
Prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough were highly uncertain, however, given the gulf between Ukraine’s demand that the invading forces withdraw completely and Russia’s suspected aim of replacing Kyiv’s Westward-looking government with a pro-Moscow regime.
Another source of dispute is the status of Crimea, which was seized and annexed by Russia in 2014, and the separatist-held Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, which Russia recognizes as independent. Ukraine considers both part of its territory.
In Kyiv, residents huddled in homes and shelters amid a citywide curfew that runs until Thursday morning, as Russia shelled areas in and around the city, including a residential neighborhood 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) from the presidential palace. A 12-story apartment building in central Kyiv erupted in flames after being hit by shrapnel.And 10 people were killed while standing in line for bread in the northern city of Chernihiv, the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office said.
The fighting has sent more than 3 million people fleeing Ukraine, by the United Nations’ estimate. The U.N. reported that over 700 civilians have been confirmed killed but that the real number is higher.
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