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Russia bombs Mariupol art school where 400 were sheltering, Ukraine officials say

No word on casualties in strike on besieged port city; officials say people were seeking refuge inside building now destroyed; 20 babies borne by surrogates stuck in Kyiv shelter

A woman and children shield from shelling in a school bomb shelter in Sartana village which is under the Government of the Donetsk People's Republic control, 17 kilometers (11 miles) northeast of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, March 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)
A woman and children shield from shelling in a school bomb shelter in Sartana village which is under the Government of the Donetsk People's Republic control, 17 kilometers (11 miles) northeast of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, March 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian authorities on Sunday said the Russian military bombed an art school in which about 400 people had taken refuge in the port city of Mariupol, where President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said an unrelenting siege by Russian troops would go down in history for what he said were war crimes.

Local authorities said the school building was destroyed and there could be people  under the rubble. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Russian forces on Wednesday also bombed a theater in Mariupol where civilians were sheltering. City authorities said 130 people were rescued but many more could remain under the debris. A Russian airstrike hit a maternity hospital in Mariupol earlier in the war.

“To do this to a peaceful city, what the occupiers did, is a terror that will be remembered for centuries to come,” Zelensky said in a video address to the nation.

Mariupol, a strategic port on the Azov Sea, has been encircled by the Russian troops and cut from energy, food and water supplies, and faced a relentless bombardment. Local authorities have said the siege has killed at least 2,300 people and some of them had to be buried in mass graves.

Russian forces have pushed deeper into the battered city, where heavy fighting shut down a major steel plant and local authorities pleaded for more Western help Saturday.

Ukrainian emergency employees work at the side of the damaged by shelling maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

“Children, elderly people are dying. The city is destroyed and it is wiped off the face of the earth,” Mariupol police officer Michail Vershnin said from a rubble-strewn street in a video addressed to Western leaders that was authenticated by The Associated Press.

Local residents carry water from the food warehouse, on the territory which is under the Government of the Donetsk People’s Republic control, on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 18, 2022. (Alexei Alexandrov/AP)

The fall of Mariupol, the scene of some of the war’s worst suffering, would mark a major battlefield advance for the Russians, who are largely bogged down outside major cities more than three weeks into the biggest land invasion in Europe since World War II.

In the capital, Kyiv, at least 20 babies borne by Ukrainian surrogate mothers are stuck in a makeshift bomb shelter, waiting for parents to travel into the war zone to pick them up. Some just days old, the babies are being cared for by nurses who cannot leave the shelter because of constant shelling by Russian troops who are trying to encircle the city.

Nanny Svitlana Stetsiuk plays with a baby born via surrogacy, seen in a nursery in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 19, 2022. (Rodrigo Abd/AP)

Details also began to emerge Saturday about a rocket attack that killed as many as 40 marines in the southern city of Mykolaiv the previous day, according to a Ukrainian military official who spoke to The New York Times.

Russian forces have already cut Mariupol off from the Sea of Azov, and its fall would link Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, to eastern territories controlled by Moscow-backed separatists. It would mark a rare advance in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance that has dashed Russia’s hopes for a quick victory and galvanized the West.

Ukrainian and Russian forces battled over the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said. “One of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe is actually being destroyed,” Denysenko said in televised remarks.

A hospital worker walks into a basement used as a bomb shelter at the Ohmatdyt children’s hospital in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The Mariupol city council claimed hours later that Russian soldiers had forcibly relocated several thousand city residents, mostly women and children, to Russia. It didn’t say where, and AP could not immediately confirm the claim.

Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said the nearest forces that could assist Mariupol were already struggling against “the overwhelming force of the enemy” and that “there is currently no military solution to Mariupol.”

Zelensky on Sunday ordered 11 political parties with links to Russia, the largest of which has 44 out of 450 seats in the country’s parliament, to suspend activities during the period of martial law.

“Activities by politicians aimed at discord and collaboration will not succeed,” he said in the address.

Russian forces have pushed deeper into the besieged and battered city, where heavy fighting shut down a major steel plant and local authorities pleaded for more Western help.

Despite the siege in Mariupol, many remained struck by Ukraine’s ability to hold back its much bigger, better-armed foe. The United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry said Ukraine’s airspace continued to be effectively defended.

“Gaining control of the air was one of Russia’s principal objectives for the opening days of the conflict and their continued failure to do so has significantly blunted their operational progress,” the ministry said on Twitter.

Russia is now relying on stand-off weapons launched from the relative safety of Russian airspace to strike targets within Ukraine, the ministry said.

In Mykolaiv, rescuers searched the rubble of the marine barracks that was destroyed in an apparent missile attack Friday. The region’s governor said the marines were asleep when the attack happened.

It wasn’t clear how many marines were inside at the time, and rescuers were still searching the rubble for survivors the following day. But a senior Ukrainian military official, who spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity to reveal sensitive information, estimated that as many as 40 marines were killed, which would make it one of the deadliest known attacks on Ukrainian forces during the war.

Ukrainian soldiers and rescue officers search for bodies in the debris at the military school hit by Russian rockets the day before, in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, on March 19, 2022. (Bulent Kilic/AFP)

Estimates of Russian deaths vary widely, but even conservative figures are in the low thousands. Russia had 64 deaths in five days of fighting during its 2008 war with Georgia. It lost about 15,000 in Afghanistan over 10 years, and more than 11,000 in years of fighting in Chechnya.

Russia’s number of dead and wounded in Ukraine is nearing the 10% benchmark of diminished combat effectiveness, said Dmitry Gorenburg, a researcher on Russia’s security at the Virginia-based CNA think tank. The reported battlefield deaths of four Russian generals — out of an estimated 20 in the fight — signal impaired command, Gorenburg said.

Russia would need 800,000 troops — almost equal to its entire active-duty military — to control Ukraine long-term in the face of armed opposition, said Michael Clarke, former head of the British-based Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank.

“Unless the Russians intend to be completely genocidal — they could flatten all the major cities, and Ukrainians will rise up against Russian occupation — there will be just constant guerrilla war,” said Clarke.

The Russian military said Saturday that it used its latest hypersonic missile for the first time in combat. Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Kinzhal missiles destroyed an underground warehouse storing Ukrainian missiles and aviation ammunition in the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk.

Russia has said the Kinzhal, carried by MiG-31 fighter jets, has a range of up to 2,000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles) and flies at 10 times the speed of sound.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the US couldn’t confirm the use of a hypersonic missile.

UN bodies have confirmed more than 847 civilian deaths since the war began, though they concede the actual toll is likely much higher. The UN says more than 3.3 million people have fled Ukraine as refugees.

Evacuations from Mariupol and other besieged cities proceeded along eight of 10 humanitarian corridors, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said, and a total of 6,623 people left.

Vereshchuk said planned humanitarian aid for the southern city of Kherson, which Russia seized early in the war, could not be delivered because the trucks were stopped along the way by Russian troops.

A driver passes through a barricade built by territorial defense units downtown in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Ukraine and Russia have held several rounds of negotiations aimed at ending the conflict but remain divided over several issues, with Moscow pressing for its neighbor’s demilitarization and Kyiv demanding security guarantees.

Around Ukraine, hospitals, schools and buildings where people sought safety have been attacked.

Russian forces have fired on eight cities and villages in the eastern Donetsk region in the past 24 hours, including Mariupol, Ukraine’s national police said Saturday. Dozens of civilians were killed or wounded, and at least 37 residential buildings and facilities were damaged including a school, a museum and a shopping center.

In the western city of Lviv, Ukraine’s cultural capital, which was hit by Russian missiles on Friday, military veterans were training dozens of civilians on how to handle firearms and grenades.

“It’s hard, because I have really weak hands, but I can manage it,” said one trainee, 22-year-old Katarina Ishchenko.

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