Ukraine-Russia conflict: 8,000 Scots sign up to house refugees as rescuers search for survivors in bomb-hit theatre
Hundreds of people had been living in the grand, columned theatre in central Mariupol after their homes were destroyed in three weeks of fighting in the strategic port city.
The attack is part of a fierce bombardment of cities across Ukraine in recent days, which have included air attacks and ground fire killing at least 53 people in the northern city of Chernihiv. There was also an attack that destroyed a school and a community centre in Merefa, near the north-east city of Kharkiv, killing 21 people and another on a municipal pool complex where pregnant women and women with children were taking shelter.
The strikes come as Western officials said they could see Ukraine fighting Russia to a standstill, indicating Ukrainian claims that 7,000 Russian forces had been killed was "not implausible".
“We’re continuing to see that Russian forces are making little bits of progress here and there, but they’re not achieving a strategic breakthrough at any point,” one official said in a briefing. “Not only is it not going the way it was planned, but even as they have adjusted to a rather more grinding form of warfare, that is stalling as well.”
The UK Government also separately confirmed 8,000 Scots had expressed an interest in hosting a refugee through the new Homes for Ukraine scheme since it launched on Monday – as European governments began to warn their capacity for taking people fleeing Ukraine was reaching capacity.
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said: “Scotland has a proud history of welcoming refugees.
“It is great news that more than 8,000 Scottish individuals and families have expressed interest in welcoming Ukrainian refugees. It shows extraordinary generosity and empathy with people in Ukraine, who are facing the most appalling and difficult circumstances."
He added: “My sincere thanks go to all of them, as well as the many community and statutory organisations who will help match people and support them when they get here.
“Of course, not everyone will be in a position to host refugees themselves, but there are plenty of other ways to help.”
The declaration came as Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said his country was running out of resources to support refugees. Around 270,000 refugees from Ukraine have reached Czechia.
UK Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said the Russian air strike on Ukrainians sheltering in a theatre "looks to be specific targeting" of a civilian building and a "self-evident breach of international law".
The search for survivors comes as the UK Government said it would deploy a medium-range missile system and 100 personnel to Poland to "protect her airspace from any further aggression by Russia" and the Scottish Government announced the creation of a a food security taskforce to deal with the ramifications of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Defence secretary Ben Wallace said Poland, which is taking the brunt of refugees fleeing Ukraine after the country's invasion by Russia, is a "very old ally". The decision comes after a number of attacks on Ukrainian targets close to the Polish border.
Downing Street said the “short-term” deployment of the Sky Sabre system would be "supporting the Polish armed forces at the request of the Polish government".
Mr Wallace said: "It is very right that Britain stands by Poland as Poland carries much of the burden of the consequence of this war and stands tall and brave to stand up to the threats from Russia."
Nearly a day after the attack on the theatre – which had the words “children” marked in white letters in Russian, visible from the sky – there were no reports of deaths. There were also conflicting reports about whether survivors had emerged from the rubble.
"We hope and we think that some people who stayed in the shelter under the theatre could survive," said Petro Andrushchenko, an official with the mayor's office.
He said the building had a relatively modern basement bomb shelter designed to withstand air strikes.
Human rights groups said the Russian attack on the theatre raised “serious concerns” about the target of Russian strikes. Russia's military has denied bombing the theatre or anywhere else in Mariupol.
Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said: “Until we know more, we cannot rule out the possibility of a Ukrainian military target in the area of the theatre, but we do know that the theatre had been housing at least 500 civilians.
“This raises serious concerns about what the intended target was in a city where civilians have already been under siege for days and telecommunications, power, water and heating have been almost completely cut off.”
HRW verified three videos posted on March 16 to a Telegram channel that publishes videos and reports from Mariupol. One of these videos shows the building from a distance with black smoke billowing out of it. Two others, one filmed from within the park where the theatre stands, show flames coming from the centre of the heavily damaged building. The satellite image with the word “children” shows the theatre fully intact on March 14.
Ukrainian MP Dmytro Gurin told BBC Radio 4 that it "looks like people are OK" in the theatre, which he said was occupied by around 1,200 people, mostly women and children, after being hit by a "super-powerful bomb".
He said: “It is impossible it was an accident. It was intentional.”
The Scottish Government food security group will be co-chaired by rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon and James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink.
Mr Withers said: “The establishment of this taskforce is a welcome and an important step. The immediate focus from the war in Ukraine is on the humanitarian fallout.
“However, it is also critical that we assess urgently the potential impact of the conflict on national food security and supply. From wheat and barley to sunflower oil, Ukraine and the surrounding region is a major player in terms of global food supply and agricultural production.”
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky called for more help for his country in a video address to German legislators, saying thousands of people had been killed, including 108 children.
He also referred to the dire situation in Mariupol, saying: "Everything is a target for them."
Mr Zelensky’s comments came hours after Russian president Vladimir Putin gave a television address to excoriate Russians who do not 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", he said. Mr Putin added: "I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country."
He said the West was using a "fifth column" of traitorous Russians to create civil unrest.
Reports have claimed an official in the office of Mr Zelensky said the main subject under discussion between the warring countries is whether Russian troops would remain in separatist regions in eastern Ukraine after the conflict and where the borders would be.
Ukraine wants one or more western nuclear powers involved in the negotiations, with the outcome set out in a legally binding document. Kyiv would be ready to discuss a neutral status if those terms were met.
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