Ukrainian officials say they have yet to find any casualties in the ruins of a theater hit by a Russian airstrike this week in the southern city of Mariupol as Russian forces continue to fire on Ukrainian cities and negotiators from both countries seek to find common ground.
As of Friday, 130 people have been rescued from the theater’s basement, Ukrainian officials said, as the search continues for the hundreds more who could be trapped in the makeshift bomb shelter that was hit Wednesday.
Mariupol’s city council said on Telegram that “according to initial information, there are no dead. But there is information about one person gravely wounded.”
The theater was bombed despite signs indicating that civilians, including children, were sheltering there. Russia denies striking the theater.
Also Friday, Russia’s lead negotiator in talks with Ukraine said the sides have moved closer to agreement on the issue of Ukraine dropping its bid to join NATO.
Vladimir Medinsky said Friday the two countries are also “halfway there” on the question of Ukraine adopting neutral status.
Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, “Our positions are unchanged. Cease-fire, withdrawal of troops & strong security guarantees with concrete formulas.”
Meanwhile, Russia bombarded the outskirts of Kyiv on Friday, and Russian missiles launched from the Black Sea landed in western Ukraine, near Lviv’s airport, more than three weeks after Russia’s war on its neighbor began.
The airport was not hit, according to Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy, but an aircraft repair facility and a bus repair facility were. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the attack near Lviv, about 80 kilometers from Ukraine’s border with Poland. Sadovy said work at the facilities had been stopped before the attack.
Ukraine’s air force western command said on Facebook that two of six missiles launched from the Black Sea were intercepted.
In the Podil neighborhood of Kyiv early Friday, a residential building was hit, killing at least one person, according to emergency services, which said 98 people were evacuated.
Two people were also killed in attacks on residential and administrative buildings in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the Donetsk regional administration.
On the diplomatic front, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a rare videoconference call Friday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Biden conveyed “very directly, leader to leader, what the implications and consequences would be” if China provided material support to Russia.
“China has to make a decision for themselves about where they want to stand and how they want the history books to look at them and view their actions,” she added.
China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the nearly two-hour discussion that “conflict and confrontation” is “not in anyone’s interest.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, however, criticized the U.S. suggestion that China risks being on the wrong side of history, saying the U.S. administration is being “overbearing.”
China could play a critical role in the conflict depending on its response to Russia’s reported request for military assistance. The U.S. is providing the bulk of military assistance to Ukraine, with Biden announcing another $800 million defense package this week.
Russia still stalled
The latest British defense intelligence assessment of the conflict is that “Russian forces have made minimal progress this week.”
As the invasion enters its fourth week, Russian troops have failed to seize control of the capital, Kyiv, a major objective of the Kremlin.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense tweeted Friday that “Ukrainian forces around Kyiv and Mykolaiv continue to frustrate Russian attempts to encircle the cities.”
“The cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Mariupol remain encircled and subject to heavy Russian shelling,” it said.
U.S. defense officials have repeatedly described Russia’s military as facing stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed tens of thousands of people at a stadium rally Friday, praising the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.
“We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he said.
“We know what we need to do, how to do it and at what cost. And we will absolutely accomplish all of our plans,” he added.
Russia’s claims against U.S.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council met Friday at Russia’s request for the second time in one week to discuss its latest allegations that the U.S. was operating a secret biological weapons program in Ukraine.
Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia claimed that Russian forces had uncovered new documents during their military offensive, and that Ukraine was playing only a secondary role in the alleged project.
“The Ukrainian specialists were not informed about the potential risks of transfer of biological materials and were kept in the dark,” Nebenzia said of the allegedly secret military biological program. “They don’t have a real idea about the real objectives of the research being carried out.”
U.S. envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield dismissed the earlier allegations as “bizarre conspiracy theories” and said the latest claims sounded like they came from “some dark corner of the internet.”
She expressed Washington’s continued concern that Moscow may be planting the seeds for an attack it would then blame on Ukraine.
“We continue to believe it is possible that Russia may be planning to use chemical or biological agents against the Ukrainian people,” Thomas-Greenfield said.
The United Nations’ human rights office said Friday it has verified 816 civilian killings since the fighting began February 24 but believes the death toll is vastly understated. Ukrainian officials say thousands of civilians have been killed.
Nearly 3.3 million people have fled the war in Ukraine, according to U.N. estimates.
The U.N. migration agency said Friday that in addition to those who left the country, nearly 6.5 million people have been displaced inside Ukraine and that another 12 million people have been stranded or unable to leave parts of Ukraine because of heightened security risks or a lack of resources.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said, “By these estimates, roughly half the country is either internally displaced, stranded in affected areas or unable to leave, or has already fled to neighboring countries.”
VOA’s White House bureau chief Patsy Widakuswara, congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson and U.N. correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.
Some information also came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.