Ukraine blogger video fuels false info on Mariupol bombing

A Ukrainian beauty blogger whom Russian officials accused of being a crisis actor when she was interviewed and photographed by The Associated Press in a bombed out Mariupol maternity hospital has emerged in new videos that are fueling fresh misinformation about the attack.

A Russian government-linked Twitter account on Friday shared an interview with Marianna Vishegirskaya, in which the new mother says the hospital was not hit by an airstrike last month and that she told AP journalists she did not want to be filmed – assertions that are directly contradicted by AP reporting.

In the interview, conducted by Russian blogger Denis Seleznev and filmed by Kristina Melnikova, Vishegirskaya is asked to provide details about what occurred at the hospital on March 9, the day of the bombing. It is not clear where Vishegirskaya is, or under what conditions the interview was filmed.

The video was posted to Seleznev’s YouTube account and circulated on Telegram and Twitter, and similar videos were also shared on Vishegirskaya‘s personal Instagram account. Russian officials have repeatedly tried to cast doubt on the strike in Mariupol, a key military objective for Moscow, since images were seen around the world and shed light on Russia’s attacks on civilians in Ukraine.

In the new videos, Vishegirskaya says those huddled in the basement of the hospital after the attack believed the explosions were caused by “shelling,” not an airstrike, because “no one” heard sounds that would indicate that bombs were dropped from planes.

But eyewitness accounts and video from AP journalists in Mariupol lays out evidence of an airstrike, including the sound of an airplane before the blast, a crater outside the hospital that went at least two stories deep and interviews with a police officer and a soldier at the scene who both referred to the attack as an “airstrike.”

At the time of the strike, AP reporters were in another part of Mariupol. They distinctly heard a plane and then two explosions. They went to the 12th floor of a nearby building where they filmed two large plumes of smoke in the distance in the direction of the hospital. It then took them about 25 minutes to get to the hospital.

“By that time you would hear an airplane almost every 10, 15 minutes, and there would be airstrikes all around the city,” AP video journalist Mstyslav Chernov explained in an interview Saturday. “This one was closer to us so we heard it very well.”

Chernov said that when airstrikes are happening, the sound of an airplane is followed by the sound of an explosion within seconds. On March 9, he said he heard an airplane and then two bombs immediately after. Vishegirskaya also notes in the interview released Friday that she distinctly heard two blasts.

“We heard the noise of a projectile. Then I personally, instinctively put a blanket on, and then we heard the second projectile,” says Vishegirskaya, who speaks in Russian.

Vishegirskaya also says in the video that she repeatedly told AP she did not want to be filmed, but recordings of AP journalists’ interactions with her contradict this. Video shows reporters’ first encounter with her outside the hospital, where she is wrapped in a blanket and looks directly at the camera.

“How are you?” Chernov asks, and Vishegirskaya replies: “Everything is good. I feel good.” Someone off camera says, “Let’s go,” and she replies, “Yes, let’s go please,” before entering the building with an emergency worker to collect her belongings.

During the exchange Vishegirskaya is aware she is on camera and does not make any indication that she does not wish to be filmed. AP reporters also said neither she nor her husband ever indicated that they did not consent to being filmed or interviewed when they spoke with the couple March 11, the day after she gave birth.

In video recorded that day, she discussed what she saw and heard at the hospital. The subject of whether it was hit by airstrikes or shelling did not explicitly come up. The only reference that Vishegirskaya made on the matter was that she was not sure where the strike came from.

“I didn’t see with my own eyes, from whom it flew, from where, what and which direction. We don’t know,” she told AP on camera, adding: “There are many rumors, but in fact we can’t say anything.”

Vishegirskaya’s newly released comments actually contradict talking points that Russia promoted after the bombing. The country’s embassy in the United Kingdom had shared the AP’s photos of Vishegirskaya and another woman wounded on a stretcher, placing the word “FAKE” over the images and claiming that Vishegirskaya had posed in both in “realistic makeup.” The misinformation was repeated by Russian ambassadors in other parts of the world.

In reality the photos showed two different women, and Vishegirskaya confirms in the new interview that she was injured in the attack and that the woman on the stretcher was someone else.

The Russian government-linked Twitter account that shared the clip ignored the contradictions and portrayed the interview as an authoritative account.

The AP has not been able to identify the woman on the stretcher, but a surgeon confirmed that both she and her baby died from injuries sustained during the attack.

Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov that has been besieged for over a month, has suffered some of the war’s heaviest damage and also come to symbolize Ukrainian resistance to the invasion. Located in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for eight years, capturing the city would give Russia an unbroken land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014.

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