- Russia states more limited war goal is to 'liberate' Donbas in Eastern Ukraine.
- UN human rights office says 1,081 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since invasion began.
- City of Chernihiv cut off, surrounded by Russian forces, regional governor says.
- U.S. finalizes agreement to help Europe ease its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
About 300 people were killed in a Russian airstrike last week on a Mariupol theatre that was being used as a shelter, Ukrainian authorities said Friday, which would make it the war's deadliest known attack on civilians yet.
The bloodshed at the theatre fuelled allegations Moscow is committing war crimes by killing civilians, whether deliberately or by indiscriminate fire.
WATCH | Here's what happened in Week 5 of Russia's assault on Ukraine:
For days, the government in the besieged and ruined port city was unable to give a casualty count for the March 16 bombardment of the grand, columned Mariupol Drama Theatre, where hundreds of people were said to be taking cover, the word "children" printed in Russian in huge white letters on the ground outside to ward off aerial attack.
In announcing the death toll on its Telegram channel Friday, the city government cited eyewitnesses. But it was not immediately clear how witnesses arrived at the figure or whether emergency workers had finished excavating the ruins.
Mariupol has been the scene of some of the worst devastation of the war. The eastern port has been under siege since the invasion's early days. Tens of thousands of people are still believed to be trapped inside with no access to food, medicine, power or heat.
Mariupol's city government says the Kremlin's main political party has opened a political office in a shopping mall on the outskirts of the besieged city. According to the post on the city's Telegram channel, the United Russia office is distributing promotional materials as well as cellphone cards for an operator that functions in the nearby Russia-backed separatist regions.
Mariupol's communication links have been all but severed since the siege began in early March. Cellphone, TV and radio towers have been targeted in Russian airstrikes and artillery barrages.
Shift in objectives
Meanwhile, in what could signal an important narrowing of Moscow's military objectives, the U.S. said Russian forces appear to have halted, at least for now, their ground offensive aimed at capturing the capital, Kyiv, and are concentrating more on the fighting for control of the Donbas region in the country's southeast — a shift the Kremlin seemed to confirm.
The seeming shift in Moscow's aims — after weeks in which Russian President Vladimir Putin denied Ukraine's right to exist as an sovereign country and appeared bent on capturing many of its cities and toppling its government — could point to a possible exit strategy for Russia, which has suffered fiercer resistance and heavier losses than anticipated.
In fact, the Russians are no longer in full control of Kherson, the first major city to fall to Moscow's forces, a senior U.S. defence official said. The official said the southern city is being contested by the Ukrainians in heavy fighting. The Kremlin denied it had lost full control.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky again appealed to Russia to negotiate an end to the war, but pointedly said Ukraine would not agree to give up any of its territory for the sake of peace.
"The territorial integrity of Ukraine should be guaranteed," he said in a nightly video address to the nation.
"That is, the conditions must be fair, for the Ukrainian people will not accept them otherwise."
The UN human rights office said on Friday that it had confirmed 1,081 civilian deaths and 1,707 injuries in Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, noting that the real toll was likely considerably higher.
UN human rights monitors are working to verify reports of additional deaths in places of intense clashes in the regions of Sumy, Kharkiv and the region of Donetsk, where the city of Mariupol is located, the statement said.
The Russian news agency Interfax, citing Russia's defence ministry, said on Friday that 1,351 Russian soldiers have died since the start of the military operation, while 825 soldiers have been wounded, though it was not immediately clear if that included pro-Moscow separatist forces fighting in the east or others not part of the Defence Ministry, such as the National Guard.
Earlier this week, NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in four weeks of fighting.
A month into their assault, Russian forces have failed to capture any major Ukrainian city but have instead been bombarding and encircling them, driving nearly a quarter of the country's 44 million people from their homes.
U.S. President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Friday 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 innocent lives.
"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 to resist 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.
While the Russians continue to pound the capital from the air, they appear to have gone into a "defensive crouch" outside Kyiv and are focused more on the Donbas, a senior U.S. defence official said.
"They don't show any signs of being willing to move on Kyiv from the ground," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe an internal U.S. military assessment of the war.
Britain's Ministry of Defence said Ukrainian forces have been counterattacking and have been able to reoccupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometres east of Kyiv as Russian troops fall back on their overextended supply lines. In the south, logistical problems and Ukrainian resistance are slowing the Russians as they look to drive west toward the port of Odesa, the ministry said.
Mayor says Ukrainian troops moving on Russians outside Kyiv
Volodymyr Borysenko, mayor of Boryspol, an eastern suburb where Kyiv's main airport is located, said 20,000 civilians had evacuated the area, answering a call to clear out so Ukrainian troops could counterattack.
Ukrainian forces recaptured a nearby village the previous day and would have pushed on but halted to avoid putting civilians in danger, Borysenko said.
On the other main front outside Kyiv, to the capital's northwest, Ukrainian forces have been trying to encircle Russian troops in the suburbs of Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel, reduced to ruins by heavy fighting.
For civilians, the misery is growing more severe in Ukrainian towns and cities, which increasingly resemble the ruins that Russian forces left behind in their campaigns in Syria and Chechnya.
In the village of Yasnohorodka, some 50 kilometres west of Kyiv, Russian troops who were there earlier in the week appeared to have been pushed out as part of a counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.
The tower of the village church was damaged by a blast, and houses on the main crossroads lay in ruins. Loud explosions and bursts of gunfire could be heard.
"You can see for yourself what happened here. People were killed here. Our soldiers were killed here. There was fighting," said Yasnohorodka resident Valeriy Puzakov.
'Nothing remains' of Mariupol
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 Zaporizhzhia, the closest urban centre to Mariupol and a way station for refugees.
"In the last week, there have been explosions like I've never heard before."
Oksana Abramova, 42, said she ached for those left behind in the city, who have been cut off from communication with the shelling of cell, radio and TV towers and do not have the means to escape.
"All the time I think about how they are, where they are. Are still hiding, are they alive? Or maybe they are no longer there," she said.
In Kyiv, ashes of the dead are piling up at the main crematorium in the capital because so many relatives have left, leaving urns unclaimed. And the northern city of Chernihiv is all but cut off.
Chernihiv lost its main road bridge over the Desna River to a Russian airstrike this week. Follow-up shelling then damaged a pedestrian bridge, trapping remaining inhabitants inside the city without power, water and heat, authorities said. More than half of Chernihiv's prewar population of 285,000 is thought to have fled.
Elsewhere, Russian forces fired two missiles late Thursday at a Ukrainian military unit on the outskirts of Dnipro, the fourth-largest city in the country, the regional emergency services said. The strikes destroyed buildings and set off two fires, it said. The number of dead and wounded was unclear.
Russia's military claimed on Friday that it destroyed a massive Ukrainian fuel base used to supply the Kyiv region's defences, with ships firing a salvo of cruise missiles, according to the Interfax news agency. Videos on social media showed an enormous fireball explosion near the capital.
Plan to undercut Russian energy
The United States and the European Union have moved to slowly squeeze off the cash flow the Kremlin gets from the sales of fossil fuels.
The U.S. and EU on Friday announced a new partnership to reduce the continent's reliance on Russian energy, a step top officials characterized as the start of a years-long initiative to further isolate Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine.
Under the plan, the U.S. and other nations will increase liquefied natural gas exports to Europe by 15 billion cubic metres this year, though U.S. officials were unable to say exactly which countries will provide the extra energy this year. Even larger shipments would be delivered in the future.
After meeting with his global counterparts in Paris this week, Canada's natural resources minister pledged to pump out more oil and gas to alleviate the energy crisis in Europe.
Biden announced the agreement alongside the president of the European Commission in Brussels. The U.S. president later travelled to Poland, the final leg of his four-day trip to Europe, where he met with American soldiers stationed in the city of Rzeszow.
Putin says Russia is being 'cancelled'
Western sanctions have isolated Russia from global trade. Putin accused the West on Friday of trying to "cancel" Russian culture, including composers Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, comparing it to actions by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday said Russia is facing total war declared by the West. He said the goal was "to destroy, break, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy, and Russia on the whole."
With files from Reuters