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At the scene of Mariupol theater tragedy, Russia prepares for a parade

The March 16 bombing of the Mariupol theater is one of the deadliest known attacks against civilians to date in Ukraine. (Lev Sandalov/AP)

Russian forces are preparing for a parade in the shattered port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said, clearing debris from a bombed-out theater that had served as the city’s main shelter before it was destroyed seven weeks ago in an attack that remains one of the deadliest of the war.

City officials estimated at the time that as many as 300 people were killed in the March 16 airstrike. An Associated Press investigation, published Wednesday, put the number killed at close to twice that, based on the accounts of survivors and rescue workers. The report also drew on detailed floor plans of the Mariupol Drama Theater as well as photos and videos taken before and after the attack.

A white flag had been tied atop the building before the airstrike, and the word “children” was painted in Russian on the ground along two sides.

Russian forces are preparing for a parade in Mariupol, Ukraine, clearing debris from a bombed-out theater. The date and source of the video are unconfirmed. (Video: Storyful)

Inside the terror at Mariupol’s bombed theater: ‘I heard screams constantly’

Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency said Wednesday that Russia was planning to turn Mariupol into a center of “celebrations” on May 9. That date, known as Victory Day, marks Russia’s role in defeating Nazi Germany. “To this end, the city is urgently cleaning the central streets of debris, the bodies of those killed and unexploded ordnance,” the agency said.

“The occupiers continue to dismantle the debris in the city center, including the Drama Theater, in preparation for the parade,” Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, said.

Workers in the Ukrainian coastal city of Mariupol cleared debris on April 25 as Russian forces continued to attack fighters at the Azovstal steel plant complex. (Video: Reuters)

Residents are being forced to clear the debris so they can eat, Andryushchenko said. “Work in exchange for food: This is the best illustration of the occupiers’ ‘victory,’” he said. His claims could not be independently verified.

Speculation is swirling about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day intentions, amid fears he could use it to intensify and expand his attacks — or to bolster his domestic narrative that Moscow is succeeding in what the Kremlin has described as a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine.

What Victory Day means for Russian identity

Mariupol is central to that narrative. Putin declared victory in the strategic port city late last month even as a holdout of Ukrainian resistance remained in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant. A total defeat of Mariupol would give Russia a land bridge in eastern Ukraine, a key port and a propaganda win after more than two months of setbacks in its assault.

Experts from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last month determined that the Mariupol theater bombing was “most likely an egregious violation of international humanitarian law and those who ordered or executed it committed a war crime.”

Video posted to the Mariupol Now Telegram channel on Wednesday shows abandoned cars, mangled building materials and cleanup crews outside the theater.

The nearly 13-minute recording shows a bulldozer moving rubble into a garbage truck and an excavator picking through the wreckage. Inside the theater are burned walls, collapsed ceilings and blown-out windows.

The grim scenes contrast starkly with the Russian outlook on life in the city. “Mariupol is under the control of the Russian army. Peaceful life is being established in the city,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Evacuees from Mariupol steel plant describe brutality of long siege

Ukrainian officials said heavy fighting engulfed the steel plant Wednesday, after a United Nations-led humanitarian convoy evacuated more than 150 civilians from underground shelters there. As many as 200 civilians are still hiding out at the plant.

Mayor Vadym Boychenko said contact with the Ukrainian forces inside was lost Wednesday as Russian forces used heavy weaponry, including tanks and bombs, to storm the plant.

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko said May 4 that there was heavy fighting at the Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian soldiers and civilians were holding out. (Video: Reuters)

In a video posted on Telegram, Azov commander Maksym Zhorin said that for the second day in a row, Russian forces had broken into the “territory of the plant.”

“The situation is extremely difficult, but we continue to defend ourselves,” he said.

Lateshia Beachum, Paulina Firozi, Claire Parker, David L. Stern and Loveday Morris contributed to this report.

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