Russia dropped powerful bomb on Mariupol theatre where hundreds sheltered, Ukraine says

US announces $800m aid package following Zelenskiy’s plea to Congress

Russian forces dropped a powerful bomb on a theatre in the encircled Ukrainian port city of Mariupol where hundreds of civilians were sheltering on Wednesday, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said.

The ministry said many people were trapped in the theatre and accused Russia of committing a war crime. It said the number of casualties was not yet known. Reuters could not independently verify the information.

Russia denies targeting civilians. In Moscow, the defence ministry said its forces had not struck the building and instead accused the Azov Battalion, a far-right Ukrainian militia, of blowing it up, RIA news agency said.

It did not give evidence to back up the claim. Russia had previously accused the battalion of preventing civilians from leaving the city, which has come under heavy bombardment.

Maxar Technologies, a private US company, distributed satellite imagery that it said was collected on March 14th and showed the word “children” in large Russian script painted on the ground outside the red-roofed Mariupol Drama Theatre. Maxar said it would distribute new images of the theatre as soon as it has them.

Meanwhile, US president Joe Biden said on Wednesday that the United States would send $800 million in additional military assistance to Ukraine, shortly after the country's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, delivered an impassioned virtual address to Congress in which he appealed for more help in staving off Russia's invasion.

“This new package on its own is going to provide unprecedented assistance to Ukraine,” Mr Biden said, adding that the Russian invasion was producing “appalling devastation and horror” in that country. “The American people are answering President Zelenskiy’s call for more help, more weapons for Ukraine,” he said.

But Mr Biden stopped short of responding to the more direct military intervention that Mr Zelenskiy has repeatedly requested, including for the US and NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

In his dramatic address to American lawmakers hours earlier, Mr Zelenskiy showed a gruesome video of the Russian attacks on Ukrainian cities and pleaded for additional military aid, a no-fly zone and more severe sanctions on Russia. He described the threat his nation faced as an attack on the democratic values championed by the US.

Mr Zelenskiy addressed lawmakers on a large screen in a cinema-style auditorium under the Capitol, as he pleaded for support saying, “We need you right now.”

He concluded by speaking in English, calling upon the US to take up what he portrayed as an obligation, given its place on the world stage to intervene in the conflict. “To be the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace,” he said, as members of Congress grew visibly emotional.

Earlier on Wednesday Russian forces shot and killed 10 people standing for bread in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, the US embassy in Kyiv said.

The attack took place this morning as a group of people queued for bread in Chernihiv, a city that has seen repeated shelling over the last week.

Peace talks

Elsewhere Russia said on Wednesday that a neutral status for Ukraine with its own limited army, similar to Austria’s, was being considered as a compromise in peace talks with Kyiv, while Ukraine spoke of outside powers guaranteeing its security.

Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, in what it calls a special military operation to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine, but has made only stuttering progress and failed to seize any of its major cities.

Bolstered by the strength of its defence, Ukraine says it is ready to negotiate to end the war, but not to surrender or accept Russian ultimatums.

Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s chief negotiator, told state television: “Ukraine is offering an Austrian or Swedish version of a neutral, demilitarised state, but at the same time a state with its own army and navy.”

RIA news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying this option “could really be seen a compromise”.

The atmosphere around the talks has become more positive after three weeks of war that have killed thousands of people and displaced several million Ukrainians.

Even if the security question can be resolved, enormous issues remain, including the status of the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, and that of two largely Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine – the Donbass – which Moscow has recognised as independent states.

Medinsky said Crimea and the Donbass remained key questions, along with humanitarian issues including “denazification” – an allusion to Russia’s allegation that Ukraine, which has a democratically elected government and president, is run by extreme nationalists.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian RBC news that there was also focus on the rights of Ukraine’s native Russian-speakers, some of whom complain that they are forced to speak Ukrainian or seen as second-class citizens.

But he said that, on “neutral status” and security guarantees, “there are absolutely specific formulations which in my view are close to agreement”.

Kyiv’s chief negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, said a model of legally binding security guarantees that would offer Ukraine protection by a group of allies in the event of a future attack was “on the negotiating table”.

“What does this mean? A rigid agreement with a number of guarantor states undertaking clear legal obligations to actively prevent attacks,” he said on his Telegram channel.

“This means that the signatories of the guarantees do not stand aside in the event of an attack on Ukraine, as today,” he said, “but they take an active part on the side of Ukraine in the conflict and officially provide us with an immediate supply of the necessary amount of weapons.”

He said Ukraine also wanted to be sure that its skies could quickly be closed to air attacks – the kind of "no-fly" zone that Kyiv has in vain urged the Western Nato alliance to impose.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has said Moscow cannot let Ukraine join Nato because that would pose an existential threat to Russian security.

Austria, which Russia is citing as a potential model, is bound to neutrality by its constitution, which prohibits entry into military alliances and the establishment of foreign military bases on its territory. – Reuters/New York Times

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