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Mariupol theater bombing was a clear war crime, Amnesty International says

Debris covers the inside of the drama theater in April following a March 16 bombing in Mariupol, Ukraine, in an area now controlled by Russian forces.
Alexei Alexandrov
Debris covers the inside of the drama theater in April following a March 16 bombing in Mariupol, Ukraine, in an area now controlled by Russian forces.

ATHENS — The human rights organization Amnesty International says Russia committed a war crime by bombing a theater where hundreds of civilians were sheltering during the March siege of Mariupol, the southern Ukrainian port city that Russian troops destroyed and now occupy.

The strike killed at least a dozen people. Russia blocked Amnesty's Crisis Response Team from entering Mariupol so researchers interviewed survivors in other parts of Ukraine, examined satellite data and hired a physicist to model the detonation.

In the report 'Children': The Attack on the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre in Mariupol, Ukraine, the team concluded that the attack "was almost certainly carried out by Russian fighter aircraft, which dropped two 500kg bombs that struck close to each other and detonated simultaneously."

Those sheltering inside the theater had written the Russian word for children outside the building to make clear that civilians were inside. The Russians denied responsibility and pointed the finger at Ukraine.

"The Russian Ministry of Defense and official Russian media claimed it was Ukraine's Azov Regiment that blew up the theater as a false flag operation, an act of sabotage to blame Russia," Joanne Mariner, Amnesty's director of crisis response told NPR. "We looked very carefully into that and also the possibility that it was a Ukrainian airstrike. Neither are plausible based on credible evidence. There was also a claim that the theater was being used for military purposes, but none of the witnesses we spoke to saw any kind of military activity, except for the occasional soldier bringing food to family members."

She said the team also investigated whether the strike might have been accidental. But it was a clear day, and the word for children written on the forecourt would have been visible from a plane.

"Even the most superficial monitoring would have led Russian military decision-makers to recognize that this was a civilian object, with active civilian activity inside," Mariner says. "

She says she hopes the investigation will provide a road map for others who want to research war crimes in sites they can't access.

"With the technological possibilities we have now ... it's possible to reconstruct the strike and reach firm conclusions," she says. "Russian authorities tried to muddy the waters by claiming that this was a Ukrainian attack. And I think we've clearly disproved that."

Amnesty International is asking the International Criminal Court to investigate the attack as a war crime. "All those causing such death and destruction must be held accountable," Agnes Callamard, Amnesty's secretary-general, said in a statement.

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Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.