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Russian attacks, civilian deaths and chaos in Ukraine as war enters fourth week

Ukrainian air defense officials said they intercepted a Russian missile, which then fell in front of high-rises in the Darnytsky district of Kyiv.

As Russia launched an onslaught of new attacks on civilian sites across Ukraine, U.S. officials on Thursday ratcheted up their accusations that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have committed war crimes, including the bombing of a theater this week where more than 1,000 people were sheltering.

The allegations came as Washington sought to intensify international pressure on Moscow by warning China — Putin’s most powerful ally — not to send military aid to Russia. U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivered the message ahead of Friday’s expected meeting between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

“President Biden will be speaking to President Xi tomorrow and will make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression, and we will not hesitate to impose costs,” Blinken told journalists in Washington.

The fighting across Ukraine in recent days has seen Ukrainian counteroffensives slowing Russian advances even as Putin’s forces bombard cities and civilian centers.

Those attacks have led the State Department to begin a legal process to document potential war crimes against Russia, noting that any formal accusations would probably be brought before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

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“Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime,” Blinken said. “After all the destruction of the past three weeks, I find it difficult to conclude that the Russians are doing otherwise.”

A woman reacts as she stands in front of a house burning after being shelled in the city of Irpin.

His comments came as civilian deaths across Ukraine were mounting, with bodies in some cities heaped hastily into mass graves. The United Nations said Thursday that at least 726 civilians have been killed, including 52 children, although officials said the true number was probably much higher.

“Most of these casualties were caused by the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with a wide impact area,” Rosemary A. DiCarlo, the U.N. undersecretary for political and peace-building affairs, said at an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council.

Speaking at the meeting, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. again denied that Russia has targeted civilians, alleging that the bombed theater had been housing Nazi groups that were using the building to store weapons.

The U.N. says 3.1 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded Feb. 24.

The International Rescue Committee said Thursday that at least 20 people were killed and 25 injured in an attack on a school in the city of Merefa.

In eastern Ukraine, a public pool facility where civilians had been sheltering was also hit, officials said, although it was unclear whether there were casualties.

At the same time, rescuers began to pull survivors from the rubble of a nighttime airstrike on the theater in the besieged port city of Mariupol. The death toll at the stately theater, which satellite images showed had the word “children” written on the ground outside in an effort to deter an attack, was still unknown. But an official from the city said there were at least 130 survivors among the many hundreds who had huddled inside for protection.

“After a terrible night of uncertainty on the 22nd day of war, finally good news from Mariupol! The bomb shelter survived,” another official from the area, Ukrainian lawmaker Sergiy Taruta, wrote on Facebook. “People are coming out alive!”

Lyudmila Denisova, the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, said on Facebook that it appeared that the shelter “withstood the impact of a high-powered air bomb and protected the lives of people” inside.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an early-morning video that he believed Russian troops had “purposefully” targeted the building.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s virtual appearance before the U.S. Congress was just the latest in a series of rousing addresses.

“Our hearts are broken by what Russia is doing to our people, to our Mariupol,” he said of the southeastern city on the Sea of Azov, which has been one of the worst hit of the war and is surrounded by enemy forces.

Local officials say more than 2,400 people have died and tens of thousands more are struggling to survive without running water, power or much food. Deputy Mayor Sergei Orlov said this week that “no building is undamaged” in the city of 446,000.

In the capital, Kyiv, residents awakened to what has become a depressing routine: reports of death and damage at another residential building after a Russian assault. This time it was by indirect fire: Ukrainian air defense officials said they intercepted a Russian missile, which then fell in front of high-rises in the southeastern district of Darnytsky.

People empty broken glass into trash containers in Kyiv
Residents throw out debris from an apartment building that was damaged when an intercepted Russian missile fell to ground, Ukrainian authorities said.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The blast killed one person and wounded three others, authorities said, and 30 residents were evacuated from the worst-hit tower. The explosion’s impact could be seen all over the block, with at least eight building facades damaged.

By late morning, those who remained fought cold temperatures and powerful gusts as they tried to clear debris. One family carried a load of glass shards and twisted metal in a bedsheet to the nearby trash bin. Others queued to get large sheets of transparent, tarp-like materials to use as temporary cover.

Ukrainian officials were also assessing the war’s toll in Chernihiv, 80 miles northeast of Kyiv, where at least 10 civilians were killed while waiting in a bread line, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said Wednesday. In a Facebook post, Viacheslav Chaus, the head of the Chernihiv regional administration, said the overall death toll in the city was far greater.

“The enemy is exposing the city to systematic artillery and airstrikes, destroying the civilian infrastructure of Chernihiv,” Chaus said. “Over the past 24 hours, 53 bodies of victims killed by the Russians have been brought to the morgue.”

Ukrainian President Zelensky’s address to Congress was simultaneously translated into English by his interpreter. Here is the full text.

Ukrainian officials said a U.S. citizen was among the victims in Chernihiv. Anton Gerashchenko, an advisor to Ukraine’s interior minister, identified him as James Whitney Hill, a Minnesota native.

Hill had been helping oversee the medical treatment of a severely ill friend when the war began, according to a Facebook post by Hill’s sister. The pair became trapped in a hospital amid relentless Russian artillery fire — a harrowing experience that Hill chronicled on his Facebook page.

Amid a constant barrage of artillery and machine gun fire, regular power outages and dwindling supplies of food and water, Hill said, he had been overcome with a “helpless feeling.”

“Bombing has intensified,” he wrote in his final post two days ago. “No way out.”

On Thursday, Hill’s sister Cheryl confirmed her brother’s death, saying he had been “waiting in a bread line with several other people when they were gunned down by Russian military snipers. His body was found in the street by the local police.”

The Ukrainian government said there had been artillery fire and airstrikes elsewhere in the country, including the eastern town of Avdiivka. In the southern city of Mykolaiv, which is controlled by Ukraine, fighting continued as Russian forces attempted to enter in a bid to establish some control along the Azov and Black seas.

The Kyiv suburbs of Kalynivka and Brovary, northeast of the capital, also saw shelling as Ukrainian forces attempted a counteroffensive against Russians around Kyiv and said they had shot down 10 Russian planes and missiles. The claim could not be independently verified.

The fighting came as a fourth day of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine came and went with no announcements. Earlier, representatives for both countries said talks were progressing.

“We have much confidence that we will have a cease-fire in coming days,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky, said in a “PBS NewsHour” interview Wednesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said talks have taken on a “businesslike spirit.”

Ukraine is burying its dead. The bodies of service members killed in the conflict with Russia are returning to hometowns throughout the country. Residents pay last respects.

Podolyak said he believes Russia will sign an agreement because its forces have been unable to take Kyiv and have made limited inroads since successfully invading eastern and southern areas weeks ago. On Thursday, the British government echoed part of Podolyak’s analysis.

“Russian forces have made minimal progress on land, sea or air in recent days and they continue to suffer heavy losses,” the assessment from Britain’s Defense Ministry said.

Pentagon officials, in what they call a conservative estimate, say more than 7,000 Russian troops have died in the war — far more than the 500 officially recognized by Moscow. Kyiv has so far acknowledged the deaths of 1,300 Ukrainian troops.

Putin, who has moved to silence dissent in Russia as a barrage of crippling economic sanctions sting the nation’s economy, has insisted that his “special military operation” is proceeding according to plan and that he will not stop it until all of his aims are achieved.

After Zelensky’s impassioned speech to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday asking for further aid, weapons and sanctions on Russia as well as a no-fly zone over Ukraine, Biden pledged $800 million in additional help, including guns and drones, although he excluded a U.S.-led patrol of Ukrainian skies. Biden called Putin a “war criminal” in what administration officials later said was an unguarded moment. Moscow denounced the allegation as “unacceptable and unforgivable.”

Zelensky, who has kept a daily schedule of live video appeals to foreign governments, appeared virtually Thursday before the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s Parliament.

After a brief delay caused by an attack close to where he was speaking, Zelensky asked for his country to be admitted to the European Union — a request unlikely to be granted anytime soon — and criticized Germany’s strong economic ties with Russia, including its substantial imports of Russian fuel. Berlin has not followed the U.S. in banning Russian oil and gas, although it did halt a major pipeline project designed to double the flow of Russian gas to Germany.

“We could see your willingness to continue to do business with Russia, and now we’re in the middle” of a war, Zelensky said.

“Why does ‘never again’ not apply? What is Germany’s historic responsibility toward Ukraine today?” Zelensky said in a reference to the Holocaust, drawing a comparison between Russia’s attempted expansion into Ukraine and Germany’s invasions of its neighbors during World War II.

Russia owes billions to foreigners in dollar-denominated bonds but might fail to pay up because of the heavy sanctions on it from the war on Ukraine.

Although it has largely held Russian forces back from most major cities, Ukraine continues to conduct daily burials of the dead.

Funeral services for fallen soldiers from Kyiv and elsewhere are becoming a regular part of life in the western city of Lviv, which otherwise has largely remained out of Russian crosshairs.

At a service Thursday at the church of St. Peter and Paul in Lviv’s Old City, an honor guard of young soldiers carried their fallen comrade’s photo to the church, then awaited the arrival of the van carrying his coffin.

The remains of Ivan Skrypnyk, 37, were taken inside for a funeral Mass. A family friend said Skrypnyk and two others were killed when a land mine exploded and destroyed their armored vehicle outside Kyiv.

City officials in Lviv announced that a moment of silence would be held each day at 9 a.m. to commemorate the growing numbers of victims, military and civilian.

Bulos reported from Kyiv, Kaleem from London and Linthicum from Mexico City. Times staff writers Patrick J. McDonnell in Lviv and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.


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