Local officials say more than 2,200 people have died so far in indiscriminate shelling of Mariupol, a strategic port, and 80 percent of its housing has been destroyed.
Under new Russian shelling, rescuers were combing through the smoking rubble of the Drama Theatre, where Ukrainian officials said more than 1,000 civilians were sheltering in a basement bomb shelter when it was bombed. Human Rights Watch believes they numbered at least 500.
Among the 30,000 civilians said to have fled Mariupol so far, evacuees say they were forced to melt snow for drinking water and cook food scraps on open fires, with water and power supplies cut off.
“In the streets there are the bodies of many dead civilians,” Tamara Kavunenko, 58, tells AFP after reaching the central city of Zaporizhzhia.
“It’s not Mariupol anymore,” she said. “It is hell.”