KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A missile hit a train station in eastern Ukraine where thousands had gathered Friday, killing at least 52 and wounding dozens more in an attack on a crowd of mostly women and children trying to flee a new, looming Russian offensive, Ukrainian authorities said.
The attack, denounced by some as yet another war crime in the 6-week-old conflict, came as workers unearthed bodies from a mass grave in Bucha, a town near Ukraine’s capital where dozens of killings have been documented after a Russian pullout.
Photos from the station in Kramatorsk showed the dead covered with tarps, and the remnants of a rocket painted with the words “For the children,” which in Russian implied that children were being avenged by the strike, though the exact reason remained unclear. About 4,000 civilians had been in and around the station, heeding calls to leave before fighting intensifies in the Donbas region, the office of Ukraine’s prosecutor-general said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who says he expects a tough global response, and other leaders accused Russia’s military of deliberately attacking the station. Russia, in turn, blamed Ukraine, saying it doesn’t use the kind of missile that hit the station — a contention experts dismissed.
Zelenskyy told Ukrainians in his nightly video address Friday that efforts would be taken “to establish every minute of who did what, who gave what orders, where the missile came from, who transported it, who gave the command and how this strike was agreed to.”
Pavlo Kyrylenko in Donetsk was the region governor. He said that 52 people had been killed including five children and that many more were injured.
“There are many people in a serious condition, without arms or legs,” Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko said, adding that the local hospital was struggling to treat everyone.
British Defense Minister Ben Wallace denounced the attack as a war crime, and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it “completely unacceptable.”
“There are almost no words for it,” European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in Ukraine, told reporters. “The cynical behavior (by Russia) has almost no benchmark anymore.”
Both Western and Ukrainian officials repeatedly accuse Russian forces of atrocities during the conflict that started with a February 24th invasion. There have been more than 4,000,000 Ukrainians fleeing the country. Millions of others have also fled. Some of the grisliest evidence has been found in towns around Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, from which Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops pulled back in recent days.
In Bucha, Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk has said investigators found at least three sites of mass shootings of civilians and were still finding bodies in yards, parks and city squares — 90% of whom were shot.
Russia falsely claims that scenes at Bucha were staged.
Workers pulled the bodies from the mass grave located near a church on Friday and lined up body bags with mud in rows. About 67 people were buried in the grave, according to a statement from Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova’s office.
“Like the massacres in Bucha, like many other Russian war crimes, the missile attack on Kramatorsk should be one of the charges at the tribunal that must be held,” Zelenskyy said, his voice rising in anger late Friday.
He expounded on that theme in an excerpted interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Friday, citing communications intercepted by the Ukrainian security service.
“There are (Russian) soldiers talking with their parents about what they stole and who they abducted. There are recordings of (Russian) prisoners of war who admitted to killing people,” he said. “There are pilots in prison who had maps with civilian targets to bomb. There are also investigations being conducted based on the remains of the dead.”
Zelenskyy’s comments echo reporting from Der Spiegel saying Germany’s foreign intelligence agency had intercepted Russian military radio traffic in which soldiers may have discussed civilian killings in Bucha. According to the weekly, the recording also indicated that the Russian mercenary Wagner Group had been involved in the atrocities.
Two former German ministers have filed a complaint against Germany for war crimes. However, German officials did not confirm the allegations. Russia denied involvement in war crimes by its military.
Russian forces are now focusing their attention on Donbas. The Donbas is a mostly Russian-speaking industrial area where rebels supported by Moscow have been fighting Ukrainian forces in Ukraine for 8 years. Some areas have also been controlled.
A senior U.S. defense official said Friday that the Pentagon believes some of the retreating units were so badly damaged they are “for all intents and purposes eradicated.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal military assessments.
Official said that the U.S. believed Russia had lost between 15% to 20% of its overall combat power in the two-year war. While some combat units are withdrawing to be resupplied in Russia, Moscow has added thousands of troops around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, he said.
The train station hit is in Ukrainian government-controlled territory in the Donbas, but Russia’s Defense Ministry accused Ukraine of carrying out the attack. So did the region’s Moscow-backed separatists, who work closely with Russian regular troops.
Western experts refuted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s assertion that Russian forces “do not use” that type of missile, saying Russia has used it during the war. An analyst stated that Russia is the only reason for aiming at railway infrastructure in Donbas.
“The Ukrainian military is desperately trying to reinforce units in the area … and the railway stations in that area in Ukrainian-held territory are critical for movement of equipment and people,” said Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Bronk pointed to other occasions when Russian authorities have tried to deflect blame by claiming their forces no longer use an older weapon “to kind of muddy the waters and try and create doubt.” He suggested Russia specifically chose the missile type because Ukraine also has it.
A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, also said Russia’s forces have used the missile — and that given the strike’s location and impact, it was “likely” Russia’s.
Nearly daily, Ukrainian officials plead with Western countries to send more weapons and further punish Russia by sanctions and the exclusion of Russian banks and financial institutions from the international financial system.
NATO members agreed on Thursday to expand their weapon supply. On Friday, Eduard Heger, the Slovakian Prime Minister announced during a visit to Ukraine that Slovakia has given Ukraine its Soviet-era S-300 Air Defense System. Zelenskyy had appealed for S-300s to help the country “close the skies” to Russian warplanes and missiles.
Slovak and American officials confirmed that the U.S. would then send a Patriot missile to Slovakia.
Zelenskyy had met on Friday with von der Leyen, and during that meeting he demanded the EU impose an oil embargo complete on Russia. She said the process for completing the questionnaire could take just weeks — an unusually fast turnaround; Zelenskyy quipped in English that they’d have the answers in a week.
There were also hundreds fleeing from Ukrainian villages under siege or being occupied in southern Mykolaiv, Kherson, and other areas in fear of increased Russian aggression.
In the northeast’s Kharkiv, Lidiya Mezhiritska stood in the wreckage of her home after overnight missile strikes turned it to rubble.
“The ‘Russian world,’ they say,” she said, wryly invoking Putin’s nationalist justification for invading Ukraine. “People, children, old people, women are dying. I don’t have a machine gun. I would definitely go (fight), regardless of age.”
Anna was in Bucha, Ukraine. This report was contributed by Robert Burns, Jill Lawless, Danica Kirka and Danica Lawless in Washington.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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