By ANDREA ROSA, Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian authorities have struggled to determine the fate of hundreds of civilians who took refuge in a theater destroyed by a Russian airstrike in the besieged city of Mariupol, as officials said Russian artillery destroyed more civilian buildings in another frontline town on Thursday.

A photo released by the Mariupol City Council shows an entire section of the 3-story grand theater collapsed after Wednesday night’s strike. Several hundred people had taken refuge in the building, seeking safety amid Russia’s stifling 3-week siege of the strategic Sea port city of Azov.

At least as recently as Monday, the sidewalk in front and behind the once-sleek theater was marked with huge white letters spelling out “CHILDREN” in Russian, according to footage released by space technology company Maxar.

Rubble had buried the entrance to the shelter inside the theater, and it was not yet known how many people had been killed or injured, Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional administration, said on Telegram.

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Russian airstrikes also hit a municipal swimming pool complex in Mariupol where civilians, including women and children, had taken refuge, Kyrylenko said. “Now there are pregnant women and women with children under the rubble,” he wrote, thinking the number of victims was not immediately known.

“My heart breaks because of what Russia is doing to our people,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday night after the theater strike. Hours earlier, he delivered a video speech to the US Congress that drew standing ovations as he called for more help.

The Russian Defense Ministry denied bombing the theater or anywhere else in Mariupol on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Russian artillery destroyed a school and community center in Merefa, a town near the northeastern city of Kharkiv, according to Merefa Mayor Veniamin Sitov. There were no known civilian casualties. The Kharkiv region has come under heavy shelling as pinned down Russian forces attempt to advance in the area.

Six nations have called for a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine on Thursday afternoon, ahead of an expected vote on Friday on a Russian resolution demanding protection for Ukrainian civilians “in vulnerable situations”, without mentioning the responsibility of Moscow in the war.

“Russia is committing war crimes and targeting civilians,” the British UN mission tweeted, announcing the call for the meeting joined by the United States, France and others. “Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine is a threat to all of us.”

Russian attacks hit towns and villages across large parts of Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv, where residents huddled in homes and shelters.

A fire broke out Thursday morning in an apartment building in kyiv after it was hit by the remnants of a downed Russian rocket, killing one person and injuring at least three others, according to emergency services. Firefighters evacuated 30 people from the upper floors of the 16-story building and extinguished the blaze within an hour.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went on television on Wednesday to denounce Russians who do not support him, even as both sides expressed optimism about efforts to broker an end to the fighting.

Russians “will always be able to distinguish true patriots from garbage and traitors and just spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths,” he said. “I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.”

He said the West is using a “fifth column” of traitorous Russians to create civil unrest.

“And there is only one goal, I have already spoken about it – the destruction of Russia,” he said.

The speech appeared to be a warning that his authoritarian rule, which had already grown stronger since the invasion began on February 24, shutting down Russian news outlets and arresting protesters, could become even more repressive.

In a sign of this, Russian law enforcement announced the first known criminal cases under a new law that allows for 15-year prison sentences for publishing what is considered “false information” about the war in Ukraine. Among those charged was Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a Russian-language cookbook author and blogger living abroad.

But it also came amid signs the talks were finally moving forward.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after Tuesday’s meeting that a neutral military status for Ukraine was “seriously discussed” by both sides, while Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands to put end to the war became “more realistic”.

Wednesday’s talks, held via video, appeared to go into more technical details.

Zelenskyy’s adviser, Mikhailo Podolyak, said Ukraine had demanded a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and security guarantees for Ukraine from several countries.

“This is only possible through direct dialogue” between Zelenskyy and Putin, he tweeted.

An official in Zelenskyy’s office told The Associated Press that the main topic of discussion was whether Russian troops would remain in the breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine after the war and where the borders would be.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks, said Ukraine insisted on the inclusion of one or more Western nuclear powers in the negotiations and on a legally binding document with safeguards security for Ukraine. In exchange, the official said, Ukraine was ready to discuss a neutral status.

Russia demanded that NATO pledge never to admit Ukraine into the alliance or station forces there.

Earlier Wednesday, Zelenskyy appeared before the US Congress via video and, citing Pearl Harbor and 9/11, pleaded with America for more weapons and tougher sanctions against Russia, saying: ” We need you now.”

President Joe Biden has announced that the United States is sending an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine. He also called Putin a “war criminal”, in his harshest condemnation since the start of the invasion.

Although Moscow’s ground advance on the Ukrainian capital appeared largely stalled, Putin earlier said the operation was proceeding “successfully, in strict accordance with pre-approved plans”. He also denounced Western sanctions against Moscow, accusing the West of trying to “rush us, pressure us, make us a weak and dependent country”.

The fighting has driven more than 3 million people to flee Ukraine, the UN estimates. The death toll remains unknown, although Ukraine said thousands of civilians had died.

Nowhere has suffered more than the beleaguered city of Mariupol, where local officials say missile strikes and shelling have killed more than 2,300 people. The southern seaport of 430,000 people has been under attack for most of the three-week war in a siege that has left people struggling for food, water, heat and medicine.

Using his cellphone’s flashlight to illuminate a hospital basement, Dr. Valeriy Drengar pulled back a blanket to show the body of a 22-day-old baby. Other wrapped bodies also appeared to be children.

“These are the people we couldn’t save,” Drengar said.

Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau, in Lviv, Ukraine, and other AP reporters from around the world contributed to this report.

Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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