Twenty-one people were killed and 25 wounded Thursday after rockets slammed into the western Ukraine town of Merefa as Russia’s bloody, struggling invasion dragged into its fourth week.
Merefa Mayor Veniamin Sitov said the assault destroyed a school and community center. Ten survivors were critically wounded, the local prosecutor’s office reported.
Merefa, a town of 20,000 people, is about 20 miles south of Kharkiv and has been victimized by its proximity to the sprawling regional jewel that Russia’s military pounding has failed to vanquish.
Kharkiv has become one of the saddest stories of the war, a city of museums and universities that 1.4 million people call home. Now it is slowly but deliberately being torn apart as Russia’s apparently stalled military pounds away at whatever targets its missiles can reach.
Similar storylines were unfolding across much of the country. In the battered southern city of Mariupol, rescue efforts were underway Thursday following Russian airstrikes that ripped apart a theater. The building, serving as a makeshift shelter for hundreds of women and children, was bombed late Wednesday even though the word “CHILDREN” was laid out in giant letters around it.
“The building withstood the impact of a high-powered air bomb and protected the lives of people hiding in the bomb shelter,” Ukraine’s ombudswoman Ludmyla Denisova said Thursday. Ukrainian parliament member Sergiy Taruta added on a social media post that “people are coming out alive.”
The Kyiv Independent reported at least 130 survivors had been pulled from the wreckage. The rescue efforts were continuing.
“Our hearts are broken by what Russia is doing to our people, to our Mariupol,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
REDUCED TO RUBBLE:Heartbreaking images explore Ukraine’s devastated residential areas
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, denied the bombing and said the military “does not bomb cities.”
But Vadim Denisenko, an adviser to the Ukraine minister of Internal Affairs, said 90% of Mariupol city has been destroyed or damaged and that almost no buildings have been left untouched. Most of the 400,000 residents remain in the city, he said.
“Evacuation and rescue efforts remain extremely difficult due to constant Russian shelling,” Denisenko said. “This is beyond a humanitarian disaster.”
In the northern city of Chernihiv, “colossal losses and destruction” have resulted from heavy bombardment from Russian artillery and airstrikes, Gov. Viacheslav Chaus said Thursday.
Chaus told Ukrainian TV that the bodies of 53 people had been delivered to city morgues over the past 24 hours.
“The enemy continues the systematic … aerial shelling of the regional center, destroying civil infrastructure,” Chaus said in a Facebook post. “We are taking great losses.”
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►The city of Slavytuch outside Kyiv has been completely isolated by Russian aggressors, cutting it off from supplies. The city is nearing a humanitarian disaster, the Kyiv regional government said.
►Europe won’t be attempting to send its first rover to Mars this year because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Space Agency confirmed Thursday.
►The Ukraine military says it has captured about a thousand Russian servicemen and that an estimated 14,000 more have been killed in battle.
►Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for Europe to stop buying oil and gas from Russia: “You pay Putin $50 million every hour. Every hour. And this money is used to kill us, Ukrainians.”
►The Ukraine military claimed to have shot down 10 Russian planes and cruise missiles over the city,
►Six Western nations – the United States, United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Norway and Albania – have requested an open session on Ukraine before the United Nations is expected to vote Friday on a Russian humanitarian resolution that has been sharply criticized for making no mention of its invasion of Ukraine.
The three leaders of legislative foreign affairs committees in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, warned U.S. lawmakers Thursday that Russia would remain a worldwide threat for years and could attack their Baltic region after Ukraine. The foreign lawmakers told the Helsinki Commission, made up of U.S. lawmakers and executive branch officials, that the Baltic countries haven’t been attacked yet because they belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which the U.S. and Europe have pledged to defend. But the lawmakers urged the U.S. to provide more troops, ground-based anti-aircraft weapons and fighter jets to protect them from neighboring Russia.
“We are not peripheral, we are the frontier where democracy for the entire Western world has to stand or fall,” Latvian lawmaker Rihards Kols said. “This will be a marathon, not a sprint.”
– Bart Jansen
Arnold Schwarzenegger urged Russia’s government, military and citizens to end the war in a nine-minute video shared Thursday to social media. The former governor of California shared his appreciation of the people of Russia and aimed to dispel misinformation to Russian citizens and military members by sharing “the truth” of why Russia invaded Ukraine.
Schwarzenegger shot down claims from the Russian government that the purpose of their invasion was to “denazify Ukraine” and shared heartbreaking images and video of buildings that had been bombed.
“To the soldiers who are listening to this, remember that 11 million Russians have family connections to Ukraine,” he said. “So every bullet you shoot, you shoot a brother or a sister. … And to President Putin, I say: You started this war. You are leading this war. You can stop this war.”
– Hannah Yasharoff
WNBA star Brittney Griner, detained at a Moscow airport last month, will be held until at least May 19, the Russian state news agency Tass reported. Griner was detained after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges. They were identified as containing oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison in Russia.
“The court granted the request of the investigation and extended the period of detention of the U.S. citizen Griner until May 19,” the court said.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist, 31, has played basketball in Russia for the last seven years in the winter, earning over $1 million per season – more than four times her WNBA salary. The WNBA season opens May 6.
The Ukraine invasion has mostly stalled and Russian troops are sustaining heavy casualties and unable to take control of major cities, a new British intelligence assessment reports. The assessment mirrors assessments issued by U.S. defense officials in recent days. The British Defense Ministry says the Ukraine resistance remains “staunch and well-coordinated” and the Ukraine government controls most of the country.
“Russian forces have made minimal progress on land, sea or air in recent days and they continue to suffer heavy losses,” the assessment said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a speech aired on Russian TV, said his military’s “special operation” in Ukraine was going according to plan and that all goals will be achieved.
He repeated a number of false claims about the invasion, including the conspiracy theory that Ukraine was developing weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear and bioweapons. He also said that in enacting sanctions, the West is trying to “cancel” Russia. The Russian economy must adapt to new realities, he said.
“The West thinks we will step back,” Putin said, according to a translation from Meduza, a Latvia-based media outlet. “The West does not understand Russia.”
LVIV, Ukraine – As millions of Ukrainian women and children move west to escape Russia’s widening war in their country, a largely unspoken front-line – open-ended, full of searing psychological hurt – continues to expand across Ukraine: the men they leave behind.
Many of the women USA TODAY spoke to were too overcome with emotion to address the subject of leaving their husbands behind, but many Ukrainian men showed remarkable stoicism in talking about the pain of family separations that have no foreseeable end. They feel it is their duty to defend their country.
“My family understands that if we don’t win this fight, future generations – maybe even the whole world – will not have a good life,” said Kotz’s husband Igor, 37, a property-developer-turned-amateur-security-chief for a Lviv-based humanitarian aid center that helps supply Ukraine’s professional and civilian armed forces. Read more here.
– Kim Hjelmgaard and Jessica Koscielniak
For the first time in public, President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal” for his continued assault on Ukraine, which has killed hundreds of civilians.
“I think he is a war criminal,” Biden said in response to a question from a reporter after delivering remarks at the White House on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Earlier Wednesday, Biden authorized an additional $800 million in military aid for Ukraine. He vowed that the American people will be “steadfast in our support of the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin’s immoral, unethical attacks on civilian populations.”
“We are united in our abhorrence of Putin’s depraved onslaught,” he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president was “speaking from his heart and speaking from what you’ve seen on television, which is barbaric actions by a brutal dictator through his invasion of a foreign country.”
The State Department has said it is reviewing Russia’s actions for potential war crimes, a legal process Psaki said is ongoing.
– Joey Garrison
Contributing: The Associated Press