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Russia bombs Ukrainian theater serving as civilian shelter

Ukrainian service members stand beside a damaged building in a residential area after shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 18. Photo by Vladyslav Musiienko/UPI | License Photo

March 16 (UPI) -- Russian forces on Wednesday bombed a theater in Mariupol, Ukraine, where hundreds of civilians were taking shelter, said city officials who were unable to confirm casualties.

The Mariupol City Council posted a photograph of the destroyed Drama Theater on social media site Telegram, saying it was "purposefully and cynically destroyed," according to a translation by CNN.

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"The plane dropped a bomb on a building where hundreds of peaceful Mariupol residents were hiding," the post read.

"It is still impossible to estimate the scale of this horrific and inhumane act, because the city continues to shell residential areas. It is known that after the bombing, the central part of the Drama Theater was destroyed, and the entrance to the bomb shelter in the building was destroyed."

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Russian forces have laid siege to the city since March 1. It's situated in the southeast, near the border with Russia and adjacent to the Russian-backed separatist region of Donetsk.

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Mayoral adviser Petro Andruishchenko said the Drama Theater was the largest shelter in the heart of the city.

"According to preliminary data, more than 1,000 people were hiding there," he said, according to CNN. "The probability of getting there to dismantle the rubble is low due to constant shelling and bombing of the city.

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The attack could cause Ukraine's civilian casualty figures to balloon. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reported 636 civilian deaths, including 46 children, since the start of the invasion, and 1,125 injuries as of Monday.

Russia's Defense Ministry denied attacking the theater, blaming the destruction, instead, on the Azov National Battalion, a Ukrainian neo-Nazi militia based out of Mariupol, according Russia's state-run RIA Novosti.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has used unfounded accusations of the proliferation of neo-Nazi sentiment in Ukraine as his reason for invading Ukraine on Feb. 24. He said the aim was the "demilitarization" and "denazification" of Ukraine -- a World War II-era term for ridding Germany and Austria of Nazi ideology. Putin and Russia have long accused Ukraine -- falsely -- of harboring neo-Nazi ideologies.

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Farther north, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv accused Russian troops of shooting and killing at least 10 Ukrainians standing in line for bread in Chernihiv, just south of the Russian border.

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"Such horrific attacks must stop. We are considering all available options to ensure accountability for any atrocity crimes in Ukraine," the Embassy tweeted.

CBS News reported that Oleksandr Merezkho, deputy head of Ukraine's parliament, posted video of the aftermath of the attack.

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"Russians have killed more than 10 people who were standing in line to buy some bread," he said.

In Melitopol, just west of Mariupol, Mayor Ivan Fedorov was freed from Russian captivity less than a week after Russian forces kidnapped him. Kirill Timoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine's presidential office, said Fedorov was freed in a "special operation," according to ABC News.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky released video of him talking to Fedorov on the phone after the operation, telling him, "we don't leave ours behind."

The British Ministry of Defense said Wednesday that Russia's desire to remain on Ukraine's road system has made it difficult for the military to push farther in the country. The ministry said Ukraine has "adeptly exploited" this, "frustrating the Russian advance."

"Russian forces have remained largely tied to Ukraine's road network and have demonstrated a reluctance to conduct off-road maneuvers," the ministry said. "The destruction of bridges by Ukrainian forces has also played a key role in stalling Russia's advance."

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