Russian authorities in the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol have begun demolishing most of its drama theatre, where Ukrainian authorities say hundreds died in an air bombardment in March.
Video posted on both Ukrainian and Russian websites on Friday showed heavy equipment taking down much of the theatre while leaving its front façade intact.
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Ukrainian officials denounced the demolition as a bid to cover up the deaths in the March 16 bombardment and wipe out Ukrainian culture. Russian officials said it was part of plans to rebuild the theatre in a city firmly under their control.
“The Mariupol Theatre no longer exists,” Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko wrote on Facebook.
“The occupiers are removing traces of their crimes and couldn’t care less whether this is cultural heritage or whether it belongs to another culture.”
Drama Theater in Mariupol does no longer exist. This is attempt to hide forever the evidence of the deliberate killing of Ukrainians by russians. The aggressor-country doesn't even try to hide its intentions to erase everything 🇺🇦No amount of lies can help escape justice @UNESCO pic.twitter.com/iM7GjWsNAz
— Tkachenko Oleksandr (@otkachenkoua) December 23, 2022
Civilians had taken refuge in the theatre before the bombardment, and large signs emblazoned simply with “Children” had been erected on either side of the building. Ukrainian officials said at least 300 people were killed when Russian forces bombed the theatre, though some estimates said the death toll was higher.
Russia denied bombing the theatre deliberately.
Russian state news agency TASS quoted the theatre’s director, Igor Solonin, as saying that the demolition concerned “only that part of the building that is impossible to restore”, and reconstruction would be complete by the end of 2024.
The bombing of the theatre was part of a protracted Russian siege of Mariupol, a port on the Sea of Azov seen as critical to Russian supply lines between areas its forces control in southern and eastern Ukraine. Mariupol had held out for more than two months against Russian assaults, which left most of its buildings in ruins.
Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security (Stratcom) said the ruins of the bombed-out theatre were “an irritant for the Russians and served as proof of their crime”.
“Even without physical access to the scene of the tragedy, the Ukrainian and international investigation has enough grounds to conduct an investigation,” the Stratcom centre wrote in a Twitter thread.
Russian occupiers are demolishing the ruins of the drama theatre in Mariupol, in which hundreds of civilians were killed as a result of a bomb attack by Russian aircraft on March 16. These ruins were an irritant for the Russians and served as proof of their crime. 1/ pic.twitter.com/62fe1RgBJO
— Stratcom Centre UA (@StratcomCentre) December 23, 2022
Throughout Mariupol city, Russian workers are tearing down bombed-out buildings at a rate of at least one a day, hauling away shattered bodies with the debris, the Associated Press news agency reported on Friday.
Russian military convoys are rumbling down the broad avenues of what is swiftly becoming a garrison city, and Russian soldiers, builders, administrators and doctors are replacing the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have died or left.
Many of the city’s Ukrainian street names are reverting to Soviet ones, with the Avenue of Peace that cuts through Mariupol to be labelled Lenin Avenue. Even the large sign that announces the name of the city at its entrance has been Russified, repainted with the red, white and blue of the Russian flag and the Russian spelling.
Eight months after Mariupol fell into Russian hands, Russia is eradicating all vestiges of Ukraine from Mariupol — along with the evidence of war crimes buried in its buildings, the AP said.