The rights group notes that two Russian strikes have hit the Mariupol theater

PARIS (AP) – Evidence suggests two Russian airstrikes deliberately targeted a theater used as a shelter in the besieged city of Mariupol, human rights group Amnesty International said in a report released on Thursday.

The report condemned the attack as a war crime. Amnesty International said there was no evidence that the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater was a base of operations for Ukrainian soldiers and all indications were that it was a haven for civilians seeking shelter from weeks of shelling and airstrikes.

The March 16 airstrike devastated the building, collapsing its back and side walls directly onto a field kitchen that served as a communal gathering place for food, water, and rare news of evacuations and the war.

City officials initially estimated around 300 dead. An Associated Press investigation found that the attack may have killed more than 600 people inside and outside the building. Most of the two dozen survivors and witnesses the AP interviewed put the number even higher.

Amnesty International researchers identified 12 of the dead.

Those who gave testimony “saw corpses, remains of corpses. And so we can try to reconstruct. But the truth is we will never know the truth. We will never know the final number. And what’s even more frightening to me is that we will never know the full names,” said Oksana Pokalchuk, Amnesty’s Director General for Ukraine.

The Amnesty team interviewed 52 survivors and first-hand witnesses, about half of whom were either in the theater or nearby. Using satellite imagery from that morning, they determined that the sky was consistently clear enough for any pilot to read the word “CHILDREN” in giant Cyrillic letters on the front and back of the building.

Physicists and weapons analysts examined images of the debris and determined that two 500-kilogram bombs dropped by a Russian jet were the most likely munitions. Their finding was consistent with several witnesses who told The Associated Press they heard two explosions.

Thursday’s report suggested the toll was not as high as those cited by the AP or the city, citing some witnesses who believed the building had been emptied due to evacuations over the previous two days.

But while two-day evacuations from Mariupol on March 14 and 15 had indeed emptied the theater, new arrivals immediately filled the space again, so almost all of the witnesses interviewed by the AP, including a family who arrived on the morning of March 16, couldn’t find a seat for her and a man who worked on the ground floor in the “check-in” area.

AP created a 3D model of the building’s floor plan, which was repeatedly verified by direct witnesses, most from the theater, who detailed where people were taking shelter. All AP witnesses said at least 100 people were in the field kitchen just outside and none survived. They also said that the rooms and hallways inside the building were crowded.

When the theater was destroyed, thousands of Mariupol residents had been without electricity, running water or the internet for over two weeks. Families lost contact with each other, and many remain disconnected to this day, leaving people unable to know if a loved one is alive or dead.

A Telegram chat for people searching for missing people contains thousands of names from Mariupol, and the victims of the war in the city will probably never be known.

In the days following the air raid, Russian troops took control of the city center. The theater was bulldozed and all remains were taken to the ever-expanding mass graves in and around Mariupol.

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