There are calls for the man accused of co-ordinating the aerial attack, Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, to face war crime charges after the Drama Theatre was attacked despite the word “children” being painted on the ground in Russian.
The theatre, where 1,300 civilians were sheltering, came under fire on March 16, but the true, terrible scale of the massacre is only now becoming apparent.
“From eyewitnesses, information is emerging that about 300 people died in the Drama Theatre of Mariupol following strikes by a Russian aircraft,” a spokesman from the city hall said.
“I do not want to believe in this horror.
"Until the last, I want to believe that everyone managed to escape. But the words of those who were inside the building at the time of this terrorist act say otherwise.”
The theatre was the “last refuge for hundreds of innocent people”, the spokesman added.
If the Ukrainian authorities are correct about the death toll, it would be the biggest single massacre in Europe since the Srebrenica genocide in 1995, when more than 8,000 people were killed.
A video recorded at the
scene that has just emerged shows people staggering from the wreckage, covered in thick dust and debris, as they make their way slowly down a flight of stairs towards the exit.
In other clips, the buildings are unrecognisable piles of splintered wood as smoke rises from the ashes.
Oleksandra Matviichuk, the head of Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties, said Col-Gen Mizintsev, the so-called “Butcher of Mariupol”, should face trial at The Hague for war crimes.
She said: “Remember him. This is Mikhail Mizintsev. He is leading the siege of Mariupol.”
Col-Gen Mizintsev (59), head of Russia’s National Centre for Defence Management, co-ordinated the bombing of Aleppo in Syria, and in a phone call intercepted by the Ukrainian security services this week he appeared to call for a junior officer to have his ears cut off as punishment for wearing a scruffy uniform.
It took survivors hours to escape from the theatre: just 150 people pulled themselves from the rubble in the immediate aftermath, when it is thought that most exits were blocked.
No emergency services are operating in Mariupol as constant shelling makes it impossible for aid to enter, which prevented rescue attempts at the theatre.
Yevheniia Kudria (24) was there the day it was hit.
She described seeing corpses with torn body parts and people dying in front of her as medical assistance was scarce.
“It was not possible to save and provide them with medical care,” she said.
“People were living inside its walls, sleeping on the floor, fed once a day.
"There were many children, the elderly and young people. The military was not there.”
Mariia Rodionova (27) had sheltered in the theatre for 10 days, hiding next to the stage.
Around 10am on March 16 she moved to the front of the building to collect some water before the bomb fell seconds later.
“There was only rubble,” she told the BBC.
“For two hours, I couldn’t do anything. I just stayed there. I was in shock.”
One resident known only as Kate, who escaped from the theatre before the attack, said women carried children just months old through its corridors.
“We knew we had to run away because something terrible would happen soon,” she said, noting that every nearby building was destroyed.
The 300 killed will join hundreds of others buried in mass graves across the city. Tamara Kavunenko (58) said:
“This is no longer Mariupol, it’s hell.”
A spokesman for the charity Amnesty International said it had a team on the ground investigating the reports and it was expected to report back soon.
The Kremlin was accused of “war crimes” by the city’s council.
“The heart is breaking from what Russia does to our people, our Mariupol,” said Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, after the attack.
For four weeks Russia’s bombardment of Mariupol has been relentless.
Hundreds of thousands are trapped and supplies are running dangerously low.
There have been reports of people starving, drinking water from contaminated streams, and bodies being buried in playgrounds.
Mothers are writing their children’s blood types on their wrists in case they are injured.
“This is a barbaric war, and according to international conventions, deliberate attacks on civilians are war crimes,” said Mircea Geoana, Nato’s deputy secretary-general.
He said Putin’s efforts to break Ukraine’s will are having the opposite effect.
“What he’s getting in response is an even more determined Ukrainian army and an ever more united West in supporting Ukraine,” he said.
Tens of thousands of people have left Mariupol in the past week, most of them driving out in private cars through dozens of Russian checkpoints.
“Unfortunately, nothing remains of Mariupol,” said Evgeniy Sokyrko, who was among those waiting for an evacuation train in Zaporizhzhya, the closest urban centre to Mariupol and a waypoint for refugees.
“In the last week, there have been explosions like I’ve never heard before.”
Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to US President Joe Biden, said the theatre bombing was an “absolute shock, particularly given the fact that it was so clearly a civilian target”.
He said it showed “a brazen disregard for the lives of innocent people”. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)