KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Civilian evacuations moved forward in patches of battle-scarred eastern Ukraine a day after a missile strike killed at least 52 people and wounded more than 100 at a train station where thousands clamored to leave before an expected Russian onslaught.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demanded a tough global response to Friday’s train station attack in Kramatorsk, calling it the latest example of war crimes by Russian forces that should motivate the West to do more to help his country defend itself.
“All world efforts will be directed 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,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address, his voice rising in anger.
Russia denied it was responsible and accused Ukraine’s military of firing on the station to try to turn blame for civilian casualties on 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 launched the weapon. Remnants of the rocket had the words “For the children” in Russian painted on it. The phrasing seemed to suggest the missile was sent to avenge the loss or subjugation of children, although its exact meaning remained unclear..
With trains not running out of Kramatorsk on Saturday, panicked residents boarded buses or looked for other ways to get out, fearing the kind of unrelenting assaults and occupations by Russian invaders that delivered food shortages, demolished buildings and death to other cities elsewhere in Ukraine.
“It was terrifying. The horror, the horror,” one resident told British broadcaster Sky, recalling the train station . “Heaven forbid, to live through this again. No, I don’t want to.”
Ukraine’s state railway company said in a statement Saturday that residents of Kramatorsk and other parts of the country’s contested Donbas region could flee through other train stations. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 10 evacuation corridors were planned for Saturday.
Russia has pulled its troops from northern Ukraine and put its focus on the Donbas after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv. Western military analysts said a long arc of territory was under Russian control, from Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second-largest city – in the north to Kherson in the south. But Ukranian fighters continued to repel attacks and hold ground, according to the Western assessments.
The train station attack came as Ukrainian authorities worked to identify victims and document possible war crimes by Russian soldiers in northern Ukraine. The mayor of Bucha, a town near Kyiv where graphic evidence of civilian slayings 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 unearthed the bodies of 67 people from a mass grave near a church, according to Ukraine’s prosecutor general. Russia has falsely claimed that the scenes in Bucha were staged.
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 more have been wounded, the country’s Prosecutor General’s Office said Saturday.
Ukrainian authorities have warned they expect to find more mass killings once they reach the southern port city of Mariupol, which is also in the Donbas and has been subjected to a monthlong blockade and intense fighting.
As journalists who had been largely absent from the city began to trickle back in, new images emerged of the devastation from an airstrike on a theater last month that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians seeking shelter.
Military analysts had predicted for weeks that Russia would succeed in taking Mariupol but said Ukrainian defenders were still putting up a fight. The city’s location on the Sea of Azov is critical to establishing a land bridge from the Crimean Peninula, which Russia seized from Ukraine eight years ago.
Some of the grisliest evidence of atrocities so far has been found in Bucha and other towns around Kyiv, from which Russian troops pulled back in recent days. An international organization formed to identify the dead and missing from the 1990s Balkans conflicts is sending a team of forensics experts to Ukraine to help put names to bodies.
In an excerpted interview with American broadcaster CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Friday, Zelenskyy cited communications intercepted by the Ukrainian security service 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 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.”
Many of the civilians now trying to evacuate are accustomed to living in or near a war zone because Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014 in the Donbas.
The same week Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of areas controlled by the separatists and said he planned to send troops in to protect residents of the mostly Russian-speaking, industrial region.
Although the Kramatorsk train station is in Ukrainian government-controlled territory in the Donbas, the separatists, who work closely with Russian troops, blamed Ukraine for the attack. Western experts, however, dismissed Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov’s assertion that Russian forces “do not use” Tochka-U missiles, the type that hit the station.
The deaths of civilians at the train station brought renewed expressions of outrage from Western leaders and pledges that Russia would face further reprisals for its actions in Ukrane. On Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry tried to counter the dominant international narrative by again raising the specter Ukraine planting false flags and misinformation.
A ministry spokesman, Major Gen. Igor Konashenkov, alleged Ukraine’s security services were preparing a “cynical staged” media operation in Irpin, another town near Kyiv. Konashenkov said the plan was to show — falsely, he said — more civilian casualties at the hands of the Russians and to stage the slaying of a fake Russian intelligence team that intended to kill witnesses. The claims could not be independently verified.
A senior U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal military assessments said Friday that the Pentagon believes Russia has lost between 15% and 20% of its combat power overall since the war began.
Ukrainian officials have pleaded with Western powers almost daily to send more arms, and to further punish Russia with sanctions, including the exclusion of Russian banks from the global financial system and a total European Union embargo on Russian gas and oil.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said during a visit to Kyiv on Saturday that he expects more EU sanctions against Russia, but he defended his country’s opposition so far to cutting off deliveries of Russian gas.
A package of sanctions imposed this week “won’t be the last one,” the chancellor said, acknowleding that “as long as people are dying, every sanction is still insufficient.” Austria is militarily neutral and not a member of NATO.
Nehammer was the latest in a parade of top leaders from the 27-nation EU to visit Zelenskyy. The head of the EU’s executive arm, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, gave the Ukrainian president a questionnaire Friday that could lead to Ukraine’s membership in the 27-member-country bloc.
Zelenskyy wryly promised to fast-track a response.