(Loveday Morris’s and Annabelle Timsit’s article appeared in The Washingotn Post, 3/20; Photo: People dig a grave Sunday for victims of the fighting in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukraine. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters.)
DNIPRO, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials on Sunday accused Russia of bombing an art school in Mariupol where hundreds of people had been sheltering in recent days, but intense guerrilla warfare across the city hampered efforts to rescue survivors or count the dead under the rubble.
About 400 women, children and elderly people had taken refuge inside Art School No. 12 in the Left Bank district of eastern Mariupol before it was bombed by Russia on Sunday, according to Mayor Vadym Boychenko and the city council. The Washington Post could not independently verify the claim.
Hundreds might be dead, the mayor said, but some of those sheltering at the school could have fled ahead of the bombing along evacuation routes that have opened up. “We still have to work it out,” Boychenko said. “This is what we are hoping.”
The allegation came days after a suspected Russian airstrike hit a theater, where the city estimates that about 800 people might have been sheltering, and 10 days after a deadly attack on a maternity hospital. The port city, which was besieged for weeks before Russian forces broke through Ukrainian lines, is considered an important strategic target for Russia because it offers a land link between annexed Crimea and areas of eastern Ukraine held by Moscow-backed separatists.
Late Sunday, Moscow called for Ukrainian forces to surrender and leave the city. Russian state media said that Mariupol leaders must either concede before the early hours of Monday morning or be considered “with the bandits.”
Boychenko said Saturday that thousands of people who had been sheltering in a sports hall in Mariupol had been deported at gunpoint to Russia. A woman whose family was in the hall told The Washington Post on Sunday that Russian troops had entered and told people to leave. People fled in vehicles and on foot, she said. They were guided onto roads into Russian-held territory in Ukraine where her family remained, she said. She said nobody took their documents.
The city council said captured residents have been taken to “filtration camps” in the town of Novoazovsk where their phones and documents are inspected before they are sent on to remote Russian cities. The woman said their family’s documents had not been taken and they were in Novoazovsk but hoped to make it back to Ukrainian-held territory.
On Saturday, Boychenko said the Russian actions were “familiar to the older generation, who saw the horrific events of World War II, when the Nazis forcibly captured people,” according to the Mariupol city council’s official Telegram channel.
“It is difficult to imagine that in the 21st century people will be forcibly deported to another country,” he said. “Not only are Russian troops destroying our peaceful Mariupol, they have gone even further and started deporting Mariupol residents.”
With communications cut and street fighting preventing rescue efforts at both the Mariupol Drama Theater and the art school, information on how many people might be trapped under the rubble is likely to remain scant until there is a lull, officials said. They said Russian forces are now present across the city.