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Civilians Survive Ukrainian Theater Bombing; Search for Others Continues

A woman cries before starting to clean the site where a bombing damaged residential buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 18, 2022. Russian forces pressed their assault on Ukrainian cities Friday, with new missile strikes and shelling on the edges of Kyiv and
A woman cries before starting to clean the site where a bombing damaged residential buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 18, 2022. Russian forces pressed their assault on Ukrainian cities Friday, with new missile strikes and shelling on the edges of Kyiv and

Ukrainian officials said Friday that they had 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 continued to fire on Ukrainian cities and as negotiators from both countries sought common ground.

So far, 130 people have been rescued from the theater’s basement, Ukrainian officials said, as the search continued for more than 1,000 people 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 has denied striking the theater.

Also Friday, Russia's lead negotiator in talks with Ukraine said the sides had moved closer to agreement on the issue of Ukraine's dropping its bid to join NATO.

Vladimir Medinsky said Friday that the two countries were also "halfway there" on the question of Ukraine's adopting neutral status.

Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, “Our positions are unchanged. Ceasefire, 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.

Ukraine’s air force western command said on Facebook that two of six missiles launched from the Black Sea had been 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 had been evacuated.

Two people were killed in attacks on residential and administrative buildings in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according to regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.

US-China talks

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.

China could play a critical role in the conflict depending on its response to Russia’s reported request for military assistance. The United States is providing the bulk of military assistance to Ukraine, with Biden announcing another $800 million defense package this week.

The Biden administration looked to deter China from providing military and economic assistance to Russia, but China’s foreign ministry said in a statement after the nearly two-hour discussion that “conflict and confrontation” was “not in anyone’s interest.”

Russia still stalled

As the invasion enters its fourth week, Russian troops have failed to seize control of Kyiv, a major Kremlin objective.

U.S. defense officials said it appeared that Russian forces on the ground remained stalled, making little to no progress as they continued to encounter what has repeatedly been described as stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces.

Russian forces "are, three weeks in, basically frozen around the country … struggling to fuel themselves and to feed their troops and to supply them with arms and ammunition," a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence.

The defense official said the U.S. has “anecdotal indications that Russian morale is flagging," and indications that Russian commanders are beginning to question how much longer they can sustain their invasion.

At the same time, the U.S. and its NATO allies are working on ways to further strengthen Ukraine's defensive capabilities, including answering demands for Russian-made S-300 air defense systems and Russian-made fighter planes.

FILE - Russia Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia addresses a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, March 17, 2022, at U.N. headquarters.

Russia hypes claims against US

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council met Friday at Russia’s request for the second time in a week to discuss its latest allegations that the U.S. was operating a secret biological weapons program in Ukraine.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia claimed 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 had come from “some dark corner of the internet.”

She expressed Washington’s continued concern that Moscow might 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 U.N. human rights office said Friday that it had verified 816 civilian killings since the fighting began February 24 but that it believed the death toll was 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.

VOA's White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara, Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson and U.N. Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.