Russia bombs Mariupol theatre where 'hundreds of innocent civilians' were sheltering, officials say

'Peace cannot come soon enough,' ITV News Europe Editor James Mates reports on the devastating toll Russian attacks are inflicting on civilians while peace talks appear to be making slow progress

Many people are feared to have been killed in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, after the city council said that Russian forces had bombed a theatre where civilians in the encircled port were sheltering.

The city council said the number of casualties was not yet known.

Ukraine's foreign ministry confirmed that many people were trapped in the theatre, as it accused Russia of committing a war crime.

Ukraine's Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the assault "another horrendous war crime", which targeted "hundreds of innocent civilians" in hiding.

As ITV News' Emma Burrows reports, satellite images reveal that the word 'children' was written in giant Russian letters outside the red-roofed Mariupol Drama Theatre before the attack.

The Russian defence ministry denied bombing the theatre or anywhere else in Mariupol on Wednesday - claims which are heavily contested.

The attack came just hours after Ukraine and Russia expressed signs of a possible agreement being struck, with positive notes raised ahead of another scheduled round of talks.

The fast-moving developments on the diplomatic front and on the ground came as Russia’s invasion neared the three-week mark - and the number of Ukrainians who have left the country amid Europe’s heaviest fighting since the Second World War eclipsed three million.

What are the big obstacles in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine? James Mates reports live from Kyiv

After delegations from Ukraine and Russia met again on Tuesday via videolink, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia’s demands were becoming “more realistic”.

With Moscow’s ground advance on the Ukrainian capital stalled, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a neutral military status for Ukraine was being “seriously discussed” by the two sides.

The positive news continued when a Ukrainian official confirmed Andriy Yermak, Melitopol's mayor, was freed on Wednesday after he was seized by Russian forces five days ago.

Listen to our podcast for the latest analysis on the invasion

Meanwhile, Mr Zelenskyy spoke in front of the US Congress via video and, invoking Pearl Harbor and 9/11, pleaded with America for more weapons and tougher sanctions against Russia, saying: “We need you right now.”

Mr Zelenskyy directly addressed US President Joe Biden in English: "You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation.

"I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace."

He repeated his call to US politicians to establish a no-fly zone over his country.

"Is that too much to ask?" he implored, while reasoning that "this is a terror that Europe has not seen for 80 years".

How was the Ukrainian President's address received by congress? US Correspondent Emma Murphy reports live from Washington

Politicians gave him a standing ovation as he appeared on screen in his now-trademark army green T-shirt.

Over the past day, 28,893 civilians were able to flee the fighting through nine humanitarian corridors, although the Russians refused to allow aid into Mariupol, President Zelenskyy said.

'Russia chose obliteration,' Senior ITV News Correspondent John Irvine reports on the devastating toll Russian attacks are inflicting on civilians in the besieged port city of Mariupol

Wednesday's theatre attack is among numerous assaults on Mariupol, which has been encircled by Russian forces, and an estimated 300,000 are trapped with no running water, electricity or gas.

Food and medical supplies are running low, and Russia has not allowed the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Drone footage shared on social media appears to show the destruction of a Russian military vehicle after multiple hits by an anti-tank guided missile in Mariupol.

The video shows multiple strikes produce near constant plumes of smoke to rise from the vehicle, which is left ruined in the road after the missiles had finished pounding it.

Elsewhere, in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, three people were killed and five left injured after shelling caused a fire at a market, Ukraine's State Emergencies Service said.

Focus continues to be on the strategically vital Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, where large explosions could be heard before dawn on Wednesday, from what Ukrainian authorities said were artillery strikes.

Russia’s bombardment of the capital appeared to become more systematic and edged closer to the city centre, smashing apartments, a subway station and other civilian sites.

A 12-storey apartment building in central Kyiv was damaged by artillery shelling, according to a statement and images released by the city's emergencies agency.

"I wish you to be the leader of the world" - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Mr Zelenskyy said barrages hit four multi-storey buildings in the city and killed dozens. The strikes disrupted the relative calm that returned after an initial advance by Moscow’s forces was stopped in the early days of the war.

Some 100 children have now died in the 20 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian defence ministry said. It added that a child left Ukraine every second to escape the war.

In a tweet, the Defence of Ukraine said: "Russia will be held to account and will pay for everything."

A senior US defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon’s assessment, said Russian troops were still about nine miles from the centre of the capital.

The official said the US has seen indications that Russia believes it may need more troops or supplies than it has on hand in Ukraine, and it is considering ways to get more resources into the country.

An apartment building in Kyiv burns in the aftermath of Russian shelling

In a statement that seemed to signal potential grounds for agreement with Moscow, Mr Zelenskyy told European leaders gathered in London on Tuesday that he realises NATO has no intention of accepting Ukraine.

The military alliance does not admit nations with unsettled territorial conflicts.

One of Russia's key demands is that Ukraine does not join NATO.

Mr Lavrov said a “business-like spirit” was emerging at talks with Ukraine that are now focused on a neutral status for the war-torn country.

“A neutral status is being seriously discussed in connection with security guarantees,” Mr Lavrov said on Wednesday on Russian channel RBK TV.

“There are concrete formulations that in my view are close to being agreed.”

"They won’t succeed" - Boris Johnson said Putin's "barbaric attacks" on Ukraine "should stop" as he said he was unlikely Ukraine would join Nato "anytime soon"

On a visit to the Gulf, Boris Johnson said there is “no way Ukraine is going to join NATO anytime soon” but stressed that the decision had to be for the country’s president to take.

Speaking to broadcasters at the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi, the prime minister said: “Everybody has always said – and we’ve made it clear to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin – that there is no way Ukraine is going to join NATO anytime soon.

“But the decision about the future of Ukraine has got to be for the Ukrainian people, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy is their elected leader and we will back him.

“And the most important thing is that Putin’s aggression, his absolutely barbaric attacks on Ukraine should stop and they should not be seen to have succeeded, and they won’t succeed.”

A building that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP