LVIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – Local officials, citing witness accounts, said on Friday they estimate that 300 people were killed in the bombing of a theatre in the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol on March 16.
The city council had not previously provided a toll and made clear it was not possible to determine an exact figure after the incident, in which it said a Russian air strike hit the Drama Theatre where hundreds of people had been sheltering.
The Ukrainian government has previously said it was impossible to tell how many were killed because Mariupol is in chaos and under almost constant bombardment from Russian forces.
Russia has denied bombing the theatre. The Kremlin says Russian forces have not targeted civilians after invading Ukraine on Feb. 24.
“From witnesses comes information that about 300 people died in the Mariupol Drama Theatre as a result of the bombing by a Russian plane,” the Mariupol city council said in a statement.
Petro Andrushenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, later gave the same estimate in a post on the Telegram messaging app.
He said it was impossible under current circumstances to count the number of dead with the help of services such as police, medics and rescuers.
Instead, the authorities had used data on the average number of people who sheltered in the theatre each day, how many of those had left to be evacuated and how many had moved to the theatre from other shelters, Andrushenko said.
They also consulted Mariupol residents who lived near the theatre, people who were there immediately after the bombing or the next day, and others who escaped the bombing.
‘THAT DAMN BOMB’
Based on this information, the city authorities calculated that there were about 900 people in the basement shelter just before the bombing, Andrushenko said.
“The bombing killed about 300 people on the upper floors and in the back of the theatre,” he said, adding that about 600 people were rescued. “It feels like that damn bomb exploded right in my heart, leaving nothing.”
The head of the U.N. human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine, Matilda Bogner, said that her team had not been able to obtain enough information to verify the theatre death toll.
“We are getting less and less information from there (Mariupol) and in that specific case we are still trying to verify the details,” she told Geneva-based journalists via videolink.
Mariupol, which is normally home to about 400,000 people, has been under heavy bombardment for weeks. Civilians trapped there have been sheltering in basements with little food, power or running water.
(Reporting by Lviv newsroom, Additonal reporting by Emma Farge, Writing by Timothy Heritage, Editing by Jon Boyle and Frances Kerry)