KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Civilian evacuations have advanced in battle-scarred areas of eastern Ukraine a day after a missile strike killed at least 52 people at a train station where thousands were waiting to leave the increasingly vulnerable region ahead of an expected Russian attack.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has demanded a strong global response to Friday’s train station attack in Kramatorsk, calling it the latest sign of war crimes by Russian forces and hoping to spur Western donors to step up their response to help his country to defend itself.
“All global efforts will be directed to establish every minute of who did what, who gave what orders, where the missile came from, who carried it, who gave the order and how this strike was agreed” , Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. , his voice rising in anger.
Russia has denied responsibility and accused the Ukrainian military of firing on the station in an attempt to shift blame for the civilian killings onto Moscow. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman detailed the missile’s trajectory and Ukrainian troop positions to bolster the argument. Western experts and Ukrainian authorities insisted that Russia launch the missile.
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Ukraine’s state-owned railway company said in a statement that residents of the disputed Donbass region, where Russia has refocused its forces after failing to take control of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, may flee through other stations on Saturday.
“The railways are not stopping the task of getting everyone to safety,” said the statement on the Telegram messaging app.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 10 evacuation corridors were planned for Saturday in hopes of allowing residents to leave war zones in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which include Donbass, as well as the nearby town of Zaporizhzhia.
Ukrainian authorities have called on civilians to get out before an imminent and reinforced offensive by Russian forces. The British Ministry of Defense announced on Saturday that Russian naval forces were launching cruise missiles to support ground operations in eastern Ukraine, including the port cities of Mykolaiv and Mariupol.
Photos taken after Friday’s missile strike showed corpses covered in tarpaulins and the remains of a rocket painted with the words “For children” in Russian. The wording seemed to suggest the missile was sent to avenge the loss or subjugation of children, though its exact meaning remained unclear.
The attack came as Ukrainian authorities worked to identify victims and document possible war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in northern Ukraine. The mayor of Bucha, a town near kyiv where graphic evidence of civilian killings emerged after the Russians withdrew, said search teams were still finding the bodies of people shot at close range in yards, parks and city squares.
On Friday, workers dug up the bodies of 67 people from a mass grave near a church, according to Ukraine’s prosecutor general. Russia falsely claimed that Bucha’s scenes were staged.
After failing to occupy kyiv in the face of heavy resistance, Russian forces set their sights on eastern Ukraine. Many civilians currently trying to evacuate are used to living in or near a war zone, as Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 in Donbass.
The same week Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of separatist-controlled areas and said he planned to send troops to protect residents of the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region. .
Although Kramatorsk station is in Ukrainian government-controlled territory in the Donbass, the separatists, who work closely with Russian troops, have blamed Ukraine for the attack.
Western experts, however, dismissed Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s assertion that Russian forces are “not using” Tochka-U missiles, the type that hit the station. A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence, said Russian forces used the missile – and given the location and impact of the strike, it was likely of Russia.
Ukrainian authorities and Western officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of committing atrocities in the war that began with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. A total of 176 children have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the war, while 324 others have been injured, the country’s attorney general’s office said on Saturday.
Ukrainian authorities have warned they expect to find more killings once they reach the southern port city of Mariupol, which is also in Donbass and has been subjected to a month-long blockade and intense fighting.
As journalists who had been largely absent from the city began to return, new images emerged of the devastation of an airstrike on a theater last month that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians seeking refuge.
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Military analysts had predicted for weeks that Russia would succeed in taking Mariupol, but said Ukrainian defenders were still fighting. The city’s location on the Sea of Azov is key to establishing a land bridge from the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine eight years ago.
Some of the most gruesome evidence of atrocities has been found in Bucha and other towns around kyiv, from where Russian troops have retreated in recent days. An international organization formed to identify the dead and missing from the 1990s conflicts in the Balkans is sending a team of forensic experts to Ukraine to help put names to the bodies.
In an interview from US television channel CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired on Friday, Zelenskyy cited communications intercepted by Ukrainian security services as evidence of Russian war crimes. The authenticity of the recordings could not be independently verified.
“There are (Russian) soldiers talking with their parents about what they stole and who they kidnapped. There are records of (Russian) POWs who admitted to killing people,” he said. “There are pilots in prison who had maps with civilian targets to bomb. Investigations are also being conducted based on the remains of the dead.
The deaths of civilians at the station prompted fresh expressions of outrage from Western leaders and promises that Russia would face further reprisals for its actions in Ukrane. On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry tried to counter the prevailing international narrative by again raising the specter of Ukraine by planting false banners and disinformation.
A ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, claimed that Ukrainian security services were preparing a “cynical” media operation in Irpin, another town near kyiv. Konashenkov said the plan was to show – wrongly, he said – more civilian casualties at the hands of the Russians and to stage the killing of a fake Russian intelligence team that intended to kill witnesses. The claims could not be independently verified.
A senior US defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal military assessments said on Friday the Pentagon estimates Russia has lost between 15% and 20% of its overall combat power since the start. of the war.
As some combat units pull back for resupply in Russia, Moscow has added thousands of troops around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, in the east of the country, the official said.
Ukrainian officials have pleaded almost daily with Western powers to send in more weapons and punish Russia further with sanctions, including the exclusion of Russian banks from the global financial system and a full European Union gas embargo. and Russian oil.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer was the last in a parade of senior European Union leaders to visit Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Saturday. The EU’s chief executive, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, on Friday handed the Ukrainian president a questionnaire that could lead to Ukraine joining the bloc of 27 member countries.
Zelenskyy ironically promised to expedite a response.
Anna reported from Bucha, Ukraine. Robert Burns in Washington, Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka in London, and Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.