Russian attack kills 25 civilians on Ukraine’s Independence Day, Kyiv says
KYIV, Aug 25 (Reuters) - A Russian attack killed 25 civilians when missiles struck a railway station and a residential area in eastern Ukraine, officials in the capital Kyiv said, as the nation marked its Independence Day under heavy shelling.
The death toll rose from an initially reported 22 after three more bodies were retrieved from the rubble in the town of Chaplyne as rescue operations there ended, Ukrainian presidential aide Kyrylo Tymoshenko said on Thursday.
The Vyshgorod region, directly north of Kyiv, also came under rocket attack, but there were no casualties reported, regional official Olexiy Kuleba said on the Telegram channel.
The missile strikes and artillery shelling of frontline towns, such as Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Nikopol and Dnipro, followed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s warnings of the risk of “repugnant Russian provocations” ahead of Wednesday’s 31st anniversary of independence from Moscow-dominated Soviet rule.
Aug. 24 also marked six months since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, starting Europe’s most devastating conflict since World War Two.
As rescue operations wrapped up in Chaplyne, residents of this small town, located some 145 km (90 miles) west of Russian-occupied Donetsk, grieved for their loved ones amid the rubble of their wrecked homes.
Local resident Sergiy lost his 11-year-old son in the strike. “We looked for him there in the ruins, and he was lying here. Nobody knew that he was here. Nobody knew,” he said as he crouched next to his covered body.
The Russian defence ministry had no immediate comment on the attack. Speaking in Uzbekistan, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu repeated Moscow’s line it had deliberately slowed what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine to avoid civilian casualties.
Russia denies targeting civilians. It has also said that rail infrastructure is a legitimate target since it serves to supply Ukraine with Western weapons.
Commenting on the attack, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter: “Russia’s missile strike on a train station full of civilians in Ukraine fits a pattern of atrocities. We will continue, together with partners from around the world, to stand with Ukraine and seek accountability for Russian officials.”
Wednesday’s public holiday celebrations were cancelled but many Ukrainians marked the occasion by wearing embroidered shirts typical of the national dress.
Ukraine declared independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union in August 1991, and its population voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that December.
Air raid sirens blared at least seven times in Kyiv during the day, though there were no attacks. Ukrainian authorities said air raid alerts were sounded 189 times across the country on Wednesday, more than at any other time during the six-month conflict.
Zelenskiy and his wife, Olena, joined religious leaders for a service in Kyiv’s 11th-century St. Sophia cathedral and laid flowers at a memorial to fallen soldiers.
The 44-year-old leader said Ukraine would recapture Russian-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
FAR FROM FRONT LINES
Ukrainian forces shot down a Russian drone in the Vinnytsia region while Russian missiles landed in the Khmelnytskyi area, regional authorities said, both west of Kyiv and hundreds of kilometres from front lines. No damage or casualties were reported.
Citing local sources, Suspilne TV public broadcaster reported early on Thursday on explosions near the Antonivsky bridge across the Dnipro river in the southern Kherson region, a major supply line for Russian troops in the area.
Ukraine’s southern military command also reported missile strikes on the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro river crossing, another important Russian supply line in the Kherson area.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield accounts.
At a U.N. Security Council session on Wednesday, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia repeated Moscow’s rationale for its actions, saying its aim was “to denazify and demilitarise” Ukraine to remove “obvious” security threats to Russia.
Moscow’s stance has been dismissed by Ukraine and the West as a baseless pretext for an imperialist war of conquest.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced nearly $3 billion for weapons and equipment for Ukraine in Washington’s, bringing his administration’s total commitment in military aid to more than $13.5 billion.
Russia has made few advances in recent months after its troops were repelled from Kyiv in the early weeks of the war.
Ukraine’s top military intelligence official, Kyrylo Budanov, said on Wednesday Russia’s offensive was slowing because of low morale and physical fatigue in its ranks, and Moscow’s “exhausted” resource base.
Russian forces have seized areas of the south, including those on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts and large tracts of the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk that make up the eastern Donbas region.
The war has killed thousands of civilians, forced more than a third of Ukraine’s 41 million people from their homes, left cities in ruins and shaken the global economy, creating shortages of essential foodgrains and pushing up energy prices.
By Tom Balmforth and Valentyn Ogirenko
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Cynthia Osterman and Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Gareth Jones)