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Russian troops ‘everywhere’ in Mariupol as art school sheltering 400 is bombed

People dig a grave on March 20 for victims of the fighting in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukraine. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

DNIPRO, Ukraine — Ukrainian officials on Sunday accused Russia of bombing an art school in Mariupol where hundreds of people had been sheltering in recent days, but intense guerrilla warfare across the city hampered efforts to rescue survivors or count the dead under the rubble.

About 400 women, children and elderly people had taken refuge inside Art School No. 12 in the Left Bank district of eastern Mariupol before it was bombed by Russia on Sunday, according to Mayor Vadym Boychenko and the city council. The Washington Post could not independently verify the claim.

Hundreds might be dead, the mayor said, but some of those sheltering at the school could have fled ahead of the bombing along evacuation routes that have opened up. “We still have to work it out,” Boychenko said. “This is what we are hoping.”

Evacuees from besieged Mariupol describe horrors of Russian attacks

The allegation came days after a suspected Russian airstrike hit a theater, where the city estimates that about 800 people might have been sheltering, and 10 days after a deadly attack on a maternity hospital. The port city, which was besieged for weeks before Russian forces broke through Ukrainian lines, is considered an important strategic target for Russia because it offers a land link between annexed Crimea and areas of eastern Ukraine held by Moscow-backed separatists.

Late Sunday, Moscow called for Ukrainian forces to surrender and leave the city. Russian state media said that Mariupol leaders must either concede before the early hours of Monday morning or be considered “with the bandits.”

Boychenko said Saturday that thousands of people who had been sheltering in a sports hall in Mariupol had been deported at gunpoint to Russia. A woman whose family was in the hall told The Washington Post on Sunday that Russian troops had entered and told people to leave. People fled in vehicles and on foot, she said. They were guided onto roads into Russian-held territory in Ukraine where her family remained, she said. She said nobody took their documents.

The city council said captured residents have been taken to “filtration camps” in the town of Novoazovsk where their phones and documents are inspected before they are sent on to remote Russian cities. The woman said their family’s documents had not been taken and they were in Novoazovsk but hoped to make it back to Ukrainian-held territory.

On Saturday, Boychenko said the Russian actions were “familiar to the older generation, who saw the horrific events of World War II, when the Nazis forcibly captured people,” according to the Mariupol city council’s official Telegram channel.

“It is difficult to imagine that in the 21st century people will be forcibly deported to another country,” he said. “Not only are Russian troops destroying our peaceful Mariupol, they have gone even further and started deporting Mariupol residents.”

City officials describe destruction amid rescue efforts after Mariupol theater bombing

With communications cut and street fighting preventing rescue efforts at both the Mariupol Drama Theater and the art school, information on how many people might be trapped under the rubble is likely to remain scant until there is a lull, officials said. They said Russian forces are now present across the city.

They described fierce street-to-street combat, and said Ukrainian troops no longer held any ground in the city’s residential neighborhoods. Fleeing residents have described seeing Russian tanks and Russian-backed fighters from the breakaway eastern regions and Chechnya on the streets.

“They are in the center, in the periphery, they are everywhere,” Boychenko said. Russian gunships have been targeting the city for several days, he said.

Lt. Col. Sergiy Bachynskyj, a spokesman for the military hospital in Dnipro, nearly 200 miles northwest of Mariupol, said dozens of workers from the military hospital in Mariupol had evacuated in recent days. About 40 essential employees remained, he said.

Russian forces “are in all the civilian quarters right now,” he said.

Industrial areas linked to the city’s steel industry, meanwhile, were still in Ukrainian control. “It’s the main zone of fighting,” he said. “I’m not saying that there are no Ukrainian soldiers in other parts of the city; they just don’t control that territory.”

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the Mariupol mayor’s office, said there was “no complete control on either side.”

“Who can talk about controlling, when one building is Russian-occupied, and one is Ukrainian military?” he said.

Rescue work at the theater bombed Wednesday has halted. “It’s not possible to get to this building,” Boychenko said.

Out of the 800 families the city believes had been sheltering there ahead of the bombing, some might have fled, he said. “A lot of people were getting out and evacuating,” he said. His own relatives had left that shelter the previous day.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said “hundreds” were trapped under the rubble.

About 100,000 people have evacuated Mariupol in recent days, according to the mayor. Thousands left on foot. Some crammed nine or 10 to a vehicle, windscreens smashed in and side panels dented by explosions.

Many left through designated “humanitarian corridors” through the front lines, but some say they have just driven straight along the highway.

Ukraine’s battered Mariupol, reeling from hospital strike, says Russia’s assault continues as bodies pile up

Zelensky said 6,623 people were evacuated from hard-hit areas of Ukraine on Saturday, including 4,000 from Mariupol.

About 40,000 people who have left Mariupol in the past week have reached the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia or beyond, Boychenko said.

Others were in territory now controlled by Russia. Thousands are stranded in the coastal city of Berdyansk without gasoline. Buses ran back and forth from Zaporizhzhia to collect people.

One Ukrainian police officer said Mariupol has been “wiped off the face of the earth.” Residents have described clambering over rubble to get out.

Andryushchenko said “it was, is and always will be a Ukrainian city.”

“The Russian army can bomb everything in Mariupol, but that doesn’t mean Mariupol isn’t Ukrainian,” he said. “That’s why they are bombing it completely.”

As Russian troops advance, the Azovstal steel plant, one of the largest in Europe, was hit, local officials said. An unverified video circulating on social media showed a large cloud of black smoke emanating from the facility, followed by two smaller blasts. Officials and residents said Ukrainian troops were based in the industrial area. They described a heavy exchange of fire.

Pregnant mother whose photo showed tragedy of maternity hospital bombing in Ukraine dies with her baby

Enver Tskitishvili, the plant’s director, said the first strike hit a coal warehouse and the second fell “very close to the coke battery.” He said the plant shut down during World War II and was revived in its aftermath — a sign, he argued, that the plant would survive this latest strike.

“We will return to [Mariupol], we will rebuild this plant, we will revive it, and it will operate and bring glory to Ukraine as it always has,” Tskitishvili said, “because Mariupol is Ukraine, Azovstal is Ukraine — was, is and will be.”

Jennifer Hassan in London contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

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