Ukraine said at least 50 people were killed on Friday and many others wounded in a missile strike at a railway station packed with civilians fleeing the threat of a Russian offensive in the country’s east.
As regional authorities scrambled to continue evacuating the vulnerable, European Union leaders visited Kyiv to offer President Volodymyr Zelenskiy support and expedite Ukraine‘s path toward EU membership.
Zelenskiy called the strike in Kramatorsk in the eastern region of Donetsk a deliberate attack on civilians. The town’s mayor estimated about 4,000 people were gathered there at the time.
Regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said the station was hit by a Tochka U short-range ballistic missile containing cluster munitions, which explode in mid-air, spraying small lethal bomblets over a wider area.
“They wanted to take as many civilians as possible,” he said, adding that evacuations by rail from the region, where Ukrainian officials are anticipating a new thrust by Russian forces, would continue.
Reuters was unable to verify what happened in Kramatorsk.
Cluster munitions are banned under a 2008 convention. Russia has not signed it but has previously denied using such armaments in Ukraine.
In Washington, a senior defense official said the United States was “not buying the denial by the Russians that they weren’t responsible”, and believed Kyrylenko correctly identified the type of missile used in the attack.
The Russian defence ministry was quoted by RIA news agency as saying the missiles said to have struck the station were used only by Ukraine‘s military and that Russia’s armed forces had no targets assigned in Kramatorsk on Friday.
Zelenskiy said no Ukrainian troops were at the station. “Russian forces (fired) on an ordinary train station, on ordinary people,” he told Finland’s parliament in a video address.
Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksander Honcharenko told an online briefing that some victims of the attack had lost a leg or arm.
The wreckage of the missile bore the words “(this is) for the children” on its side. Russia has for years accused Ukraine of killing civilians including children with strikes in separatist-held eastern Ukraine.Referring to that message, EU executive head Ursula von der Leyen told a Kyiv news conference: “The cynical behaviour has almost no benchmark anymore… It is unbelievable.”.
Ukrainian officials say Russia’s military is regrouping after withdrawing eastwards from the zone around Kyiv, where a forensics team on Friday began exhuming a mass grave in the town of Bucha.
The grave’s discovery last week galvanised the West into toughening sanctions against Russia and speeding up arms deliveries to Ukraine.
Since Russian troops pulled back from Bucha, Ukrainian officials say hundreds of dead civilians have been found there.
Visiting the town on Friday, von der Leyen said it had witnessed the “unthinkable”.
She later handed Zelenskiy a questionnaire forming a starting point for the EU to decide on membership, telling him: “It will not as usual be a matter of years to form this opinion but I think a matter of weeks.”
Russia has called allegations that its forces executed civilians in Bucha a “monstrous forgery” aimed at denigrating its army.
Moscow has denied targeting civilians since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour.
Ukraine and Western supporters call that a pretext for an unprovoked invasion that has displaced a quarter of the population and killed or injured thousands.
Ukrainian officials now expect an attempt by Russian forces to gain full control of Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk, both partly held by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The Kremlin said on Friday the “special operation” could end in the “foreseeable future” with its aims being achieved through work by the Russian military and peace negotiators.
Russian forces have however failed to take any major cities so far, confronted by unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance and dogged by what Western intelligence officials say have been logistical, supply and morale problems.
RECOVERING FROM OCCUPATION
Kyiv has called on its allies for deliveries of more, heavier armaments needed to respond and on Thursday secured a new commitment from the NATO alliance to supply a wide range of weapons.
Slovakia has donated its S-300 air defence system to Ukraine, Prime Minister Eduard Heger said on Friday, while Britain will send a further 100 million pounds ($130 million) of military support, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
In Prague, defence sources said the Czech Republic had delivered tanks, rocket launchers, howitzers and infantry fighting vehicles and would ship more.
Residents of areas north of Kyiv were meanwhile still coming to terms with a month-long occupation.
In the village of Yahidne, residents recounted how more than 300 people were trapped for weeks in a school basement, with names of those who did not survive or were killed by soldiers scrawled on the wall.
Reuters was not able to verify independently the villagers’ accounts. Reporters saw one freshly dug grave and two bodies wrapped in white plastic sheets.
Ukraine‘s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said authorities had found 650 bodies, 40 of them children, in the Kyiv region.
The West has imposed more sanctions on Russia since the images surfaced, with Washington targeting top Russian lenders and President Vladimir Putin’s daughters while the EU banned nearly 20 billion euros worth of trade, including Russian coal.
Zelenskiy has urged Brussels also to ban Russian oil and gas.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, in Kyiv with van der Leyen, said a potential oil ban would be discussed on Monday, but called oil sanctions “a big elephant in the room” given concerns over its impact on Europe’s economy and its consumers.
Von der Leyen said the EU needed to monitor Russian attempts to circumvent existing sanctions and impose stricter ones if necessary.