LONDON -- The Russian military committed "a clear war crime" when its forces bombed a packed drama theater in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in March, Amnesty International said Thursday.
The London-based international human rights group published a new report documenting how the deadly blitz on the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater unfolded, citing interviews with numerous survivors and witnesses as well as "extensive digital evidence," which included photographs, videos, radio intercepts, satellite imagery and radar data. The report concluded that the evidence indicates the attack "was almost certainly an airstrike carried out by the Russian military," with the theater as "the intended target."
"After months of rigorous investigation, analysis of satellite imagery and interviews with dozens of witnesses, we concluded that the strike was a clear war crime committed by Russian forces," Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard said in a statement Thursday.
As many as 1,500 civilians had been taking refuge in the grand, columned Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theater in central Mariupol when it was struck on March 16, according to the Ukrainian government. Russian forces had been relentlessly bombarding the strategic port city in southeastern Ukraine since launching an invasion on Feb. 24. Satellite images taken prior to the attack showed huge, white Cyrillic letters written on the pavement in front of and behind the building, spelling out the Russian word for "children" -- "deti" -- to alert warplanes to those inside.
According to Amnesty International's report, Russian fighter aircraft most likely attacked the theater-turned-shelter using two 500-kilogram bombs that struck close to each other and detonated simultaneously. The strike took place on a clear morning and landed inside the main structure of the theater, which the report noted was a cultural landmark and the only big building in the middle of a large park in Mariupol. The theater's civilian character and the presence of numerous civilians "were evident," according to the report.
About a week after the attack, the Mariupol City Council said the death toll was around 300, citing eyewitnesses. A subsequent investigation by The Associated Press found evidence that the strike was far deadlier than initially estimated, killing closer to 600 people inside and outside the building. The AP called it "the single deadliest known attack against civilians to date" in Russia's war on Ukraine.
It remains unclear exactly how many people were killed, but Amnesty International said the death toll is likely much smaller than previously reported. Based on a review of witness accounts and other sources, the organization believes "at least a dozen people died in the attack, but also that it is likely that many additional fatalities remain unreported," according to the report.
"Many people were injured and killed in this merciless attack. Their deaths were likely caused by Russian forces deliberately targeting Ukrainian civilians," Callamard said. "The International Criminal Court, and all others with jurisdiction over crimes committed during this conflict, must investigate this attack as a war crime. All those responsible must be held accountable for causing such death and destruction."
The Russian military claimed to have fully captured Mariupol in late May, after a nearly three month siege that reduced the city of 430,000 people to smoldering ruin. The victory secured a coastal corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
"Through the air and on the ground, Russian forces have been on a well-documented and deliberate killing spree of civilians in Ukraine," Callamard added. "Thorough investigations are urgently needed in order to hold perpetrators accountable for the serious injury and loss of civilian life they caused, as well as for the extensive damage to civilian infrastructure."