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A destroyed building in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 17.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Reuters

Rescue workers searched for survivors Thursday in the ruins of a theatre blown apart by a Russian air strike in the besieged city of Mariupol, while scores of Ukrainians across the country were killed in ferocious urban attacks on a school, a hostel and other sites.

Hundreds of civilians had been taking shelter in the grand, columned theatre in central Mariupol after their homes were destroyed in three weeks of fighting in the southern port city of 430,000.

More than a day after the air strike, there were no reports of deaths. With communications disrupted across the city and movement difficult because of shelling and other fighting, there were also conflicting reports on whether anyone had emerged from the rubble.

“We hope and we think that some people who stayed in the shelter under the theatre could survive,” Petro Andrushchenko, an official with the mayor’s office, told The Associated Press. He said the building had a relatively modern basement bomb shelter designed to withstand air strikes.

Other officials had said earlier that some people had gotten out. Ukraine’s ombudswoman, Ludmyla Denisova, said on the Telegram messaging app that the shelter had held up.

Satellite imagery on Monday from Maxar technology showed huge white letters on the pavement in front of and behind the theatre spelling out “CHILDREN” in Russian – “DETI” – to alert warplanes to those inside.

Across the city, snow flurries fell around the skeletons of burned, windowless and shrapnel-scarred apartment buildings as smoke rose above the skyline.

“We are trying to survive somehow,” said one Mariupol resident, who gave only her first name, Elena. “My child is hungry. I don’t know what to give him to eat.”

She had been trying to call her mother, who was in a town 50 miles (80 kilometres) away. “I can’t tell her I am alive, you understand. There is no connection, just nothing,” she said.

Cars, some with the “Z” symbol of the Russian invasion force in their windows, drove past stacks of ammunition boxes and artillery shells in a neighbourhood controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

Russia’s military denied bombing the theatre or anyplace else in Mariupol on Wednesday.

The strike against the theatre was part of a furious bombardment of civilian sites in multiple cities over the past few days.

In the northern city of Chernihiv, at least 53 people had been brought to morgues over the past 24 hours, killed amid heavy Russian air attacks and ground fire, the local governor, Viacheslav Chaus, told Ukrainian TV on Thursday.

Ukraine’s emergency services said a mother, father and three of their children, including 3-year-old twins, were killed when a Chernihiv hostel was shelled.

Civilians were hiding in basements and shelters across the embattled city of 280,000, “The city has never known such nightmarish, colossal losses and destruction,” Chaus said.

At least 21 people were killed when Russian artillery destroyed a school and a community centre before dawn in Merefa, near the northeast city of Kharkiv, according to Mayor Veniamin Sitov. The region has seen heavy bombardment in a bid by stalled Russian forces to advance.

In eastern Ukraine, a municipal pool complex where pregnant women and women with children were taking shelter was also hit Wednesday, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional administration. There was no word on casualties in that strike.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for more help for his country in a video address to German lawmakers, saying thousands of people have been killed, including 108 children. He also referred to the dire situation in Mariupol, saying: “Everything is a target for them.”

The address began with a delay because of a technical problem caused by an attack close to where Zelensky was speaking, Bundestag deputy speaker Katrin Goering-Eckardt said.

  • Ukrainian firefighters extinguish a blaze at a warehouse after a bombing in Kyiv, Ukraine.VADIM GHIRDA/The Associated Press

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Zelensky’s office said Russian air strikes hit the Kalynivka and Brovary suburbs of the capital, Kyiv. Emergency authorities in Kyiv said a fire broke out in a 16-story apartment building hit by remnants of a downed Russian rocket, and one person was killed.

The UN Security Council planned to meet Thursday on the crisis.

In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven leading economies accused Putin of conducting an “unprovoked and shameful war,” and called on Russia to comply with the International Court of Justice’s order to stop its attack and withdraw its forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went on television Wednesday to excoriate Russians who don’t back him.

Russians “will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths,” said Putin, using language reminiscent of the Stalinist era. “I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country.”

He said the West is using a “fifth column” of traitorous Russians to create civil unrest. “And there is only one goal, I have already spoken about it – the destruction of Russia,” he said.

The speech appeared to be a warning that his authoritarian rule, which had already grown tighter since the invasion began on Feb. 24, could become even more repressive.

In a sign of that, Russian law enforcement announced the first known criminal cases under a new law that allows for 15-year prison terms for posting what is deemed to be “false information” about the war. Among those charged was Veronika Belotserkovskaya, a Russian-language cookbook author and blogger living abroad.

Both Ukraine and Russia this week reported some progress in negotiations. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that some negotiators were breaking into working groups, “but there should be contacts today.”

Talks were held by video Wednesday. An official in Zelensky’s office told the AP that 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.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks, said Ukraine was insisting on the inclusion of one or more Western nuclear powers in the negotiations and on legally binding security guarantees for Ukraine.

In exchange, the official said, Ukraine was ready to discuss a neutral military status.

Russia has demanded that NATO pledge never to admit Ukraine to the alliance or station forces there.

The fighting has led more than 3 million people to flee Ukraine, the UN estimates. The death toll remains unknown, though Ukraine has said thousands of civilians have died.

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