Russian airstrikes ripped apart a theater in Mariupol that served as a makeshift shelter for hundreds of people, Ukrainian officials said Thursday.

The theater was bombed late Wednesday even though the word “CHILDREN” was laid out in giant letters in front of the building to protect it. The strikes left many civilians buried in the burning rubble, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement. There was no immediate word on how many people were killed or injured.

“After an awful night of not knowing, we finally have good news from Mariupol on the morning of the 22nd day of the war,” former Donetsk regional official Sergei Taruta wrote on Facebook, according to CNN. “The bomb shelter (of the theater) was able to hold. The rubble is beginning to be cleared. People are coming out alive.”

A photo released by Mariupol’s city council showed an entire section of the vast, 3-story theater had collapsed after the strike. Residents had taken refuge in the building’s basement, seeking safety amid Russia’s 3-week, strangulating siege of the strategic Azov Sea port city.

REDUCED TO RUBBLE:Heartbreaking images explore Ukraine’s devastated residential areas

“Our hearts are broken by what Russia is doing to our people, to our Mariupol,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

Vadim Denisenko, an adviser to the minister of Internal Affairs, said 90% of Mariupol city has been destroyed or damaged and that almost no buildings have been left untouched. Most of the 400,000 residents remain in the city, he said.

“Evacuation and rescue efforts remain extremely difficult due to constant Russian shelling,” Denisenko said. “This is beyond a humanitarian disaster.”

NEWS ON YOUR FINGERTIPS:Get updates on the situation in Ukraine. Sign up here.

USA TODAY on Telegram: Join our new Russia-Ukraine war channel to receive updates straight to your phone

Latest developments

►Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for Europe to stop buying oil and gas from Russia: “You pay Putin $50 million every hour. Every hour. And this money is used to kill us, Ukrainians.”

►The Ukraine military claimed to have shot down 10 Russian planes and cruise missiles over the city,

►Six Western nations — the United States, United Kingdom, France, Ireland, Norway, and Albania — have requested an open session on Ukraine before the United Nations is expected to vote Friday on a Russian humanitarian resolution that has been sharply criticized for making no mention of its invasion of Ukraine.

►Ukrainian and Russian delegations held talks again Wednesday by video. An official in Zelenskyy’s office said the main subject under discussion was whether Russian troops would remain in separatist regions in eastern Ukraine after the war and where the borders would be.

►Three Panama-flagged ships have been hit by Russian missiles in the Black Sea since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and one sank, Panamanian authorities said Wednesday.

Putin says ‘special operation’ in Ukraine is going well

Putin, in a speech aired on Russian TV, said his military’s “special operation” in Ukraine was going according to plan and that all goals will be achieved.

He repeated a number of false claims about the invasion, including the conspiracy theory that Ukraine was developing weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear and bioweapons. He also said that in enacting sanctions, the West is trying to “cancel” Russia. The Russian economy must adapt to new realities, he said.

“The West thinks we will step back,” Putin said, according to a translation from Meduza, a Latvia-based media outlet. “The West does not understand Russia.”

Ukrainian men steel for battle as they say goodbye to families

LVIV, Ukraine — As millions of Ukrainian women and children move west to escape Russia’s widening war in their country, a largely unspoken front-line – open-ended, full of searing psychological hurt – continues to expand across Ukraine: the men they leave behind.

Many of the women USA TODAY spoke to were too overcome with emotion to address the subject of leaving their husbands behind, but many Ukrainian men showed remarkable stoicism in talking about the pain of family separations that have no foreseeable end. They feel it is their duty to defend their country.

“My family understands that if we don’t win this fight, future generations – maybe even the whole world – will not have a good life,” said Kotz’s husband Igor, 37, a property-developer-turned-amateur-security-chief for a Lviv-based humanitarian aid center that helps supply Ukraine’s professional and civilian armed forces. Read more here.

— Kim Hjelmgaard and Jessica Koscielniak

Biden calls Putin a ‘war criminal’

For the first time in public, President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal” for his continued assault on Ukraine, which has killed hundreds of civilians.

“I think he is a war criminal,” Biden said in response to a question from a reporter after delivering remarks at the White House on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Earlier Wednesday, Biden authorized an additional $800 million in military aid for Ukraine. He vowed that the American people will be “steadfast in our support of the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin’s immoral, unethical attacks on civilian populations.”

“We are united in our abhorrence of Putin’s depraved onslaught,” he said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the president was “speaking from his heart and speaking from what you’ve seen on television, which is barbaric actions by a brutal dictator through his invasion of a foreign country.”

The State Department has said it is reviewing Russia’s actions for potential war crimes, a legal process Psaki said is ongoing.

— Joey Garrison

Ex-ambassador to Russia on Putin: He’s killing Ukrainians ‘indiscriminately’

Michael Anthony McFaul worked for the U.S. National Security Council as senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs before his appointment by President Barack Obama as U.S. Ambassador to Russia. For five years McFaul regularly sat across the table from Russian President Vladimir Putin, attempting to improve relations between the two superpowers.

As the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, McFaul met regularly with Russian pro-democracy advocates, a course of action that drew the wrath of Putin’s government. He is currently on the Kremlin’s sanction list of people not allowed to enter Russia. Today McFaul works as a Professor in International Studies at Stanford University and is the Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

On Tuesday, McFaul granted an exclusive interview with the Great Falls Tribune, part of the USA TODAY Network, in which he discussed Putin’s war in Ukraine, the role China may yet play in the conflict, and gave his thoughts on what additional measure the U.S. can take to oppose the Russian invasion.

“It’s just shocking and horrible, the lines Putin has already crossed,” McFaul told the Tribune. “He is deliberately terrorizing civilians. Killing the elderly, women and children, young kids, people in hospitals, people trying to give birth. This is a horrific way to conduct a war. He’s not fighting the Ukrainian soldiers, he’s fighting the Ukrainian people, and he’s killing them indiscriminately.” Read more here.

— David Murray, Great Falls Tribune, USA TODAY Network

Contributing: The Associated Press

[Read More…]