By Adam Schreck And Mstyslav Chernov, The Associated Press
Russian forces accelerated scattered attacks on Kyiv, western Ukraine and beyond Saturday in an explosive reminder to Ukrainians and their Western supporters that the whole country remains under threat despite Russia’s pivot toward mounting a new offensive in the east.
Stung by the loss of its Black Sea flagship and indignant over alleged Ukrainian aggression on Russian territory, Russia’s military command had warned of renewed missile strikes on Ukraine’s capital. Officials in Moscow said they were targeting military sites, a claim repeated – and refuted by witnesses – throughout 52 days of war.
But the toll reaches much deeper. Each day brings new discoveries of civilian victims of an invasion that has shattered European security. As Russia prepared for the anticipated offensive, a mother wept over her 15-year-old son’s body after rockets hit a residential area of Kharkiv, a city in the northeast. An infant and at least eight other people died, officials said.
In the Kyiv region, Ukrainian authorities have reported finding the bodies of more than 900 civilians, most shot dead, since Russian troops retreated two weeks ago. Smoke rose from the capital again early Saturday as Mayor Vitali Klitschko reported a strike that killed one person and wounded several.
The mayor advised residents who fled the city earlier in the war not to return.
“We’re not ruling out further strikes on the capital,” Klitschko said. “If you have the opportunity to stay a little bit longer in the cities where it’s safer, do it.”
It was not immediately clear from the ground what was hit in Saturday’s strike on Kyiv’s Darnytskyi district. The sprawling district on the southeastern edge of the capital contains a mixture of Soviet-style apartment blocks, newer shopping centers and big-box retail outlets, industrial areas and railyards.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said an armoured vehicle plant was targeted. He didn’t specify where the plant is located, but there is one in the Darnytskyi district.
He said the plant was among multiple Ukrainian military sites hit with “air-launched high-precision long-range weapons.” As the U.S. and Europe send new arms to Ukraine, the strategy could be aimed at hobbling Ukraine’s defences ahead of what’s expected to be a full-scale Russian assault in the east.
It was the second strike in the Kyiv area since the Russian military vowed this week to step up missile strikes on the capital. Another hit a missile plant on Friday as residents emerged for walks, foreign embassies planned to reopen and other tentative signs of the city’s prewar life began to resurface following the failure of Russian troops to capture Kyiv and their withdrawal to concentrate on the east.
Kyiv was one of many targets Saturday. The Ukrainian president’s office reported missile strikes and shelling over the past 24 hours in eight regions stretching across the country.
The governor of the Lviv region in western Ukraine – far from the volatile east and an area long seen as a safe zone – reported airstrikes on the region by Russian Su-35 aircraft that took off from neighbouring Belarus.
In apparent preparations for its assault on the east, the Russian military intensified shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in recent days. Along with killing civilians, Friday’s assault wounded more than 50 people, the Ukrainian president’s office reported.
On Saturday, an explosion believed to be caused by a missile sent emergency workers scrambling near an outdoor market in Kharkiv, according to AP journalists at the scene. One person was killed, and at least 18 people were wounded, according to rescue workers.
“All the windows, all the furniture, all destroyed. And the door, too,” recounted stunned resident Valentina Ulianova.
In southeastern Ukraine, the pummeled southern port city of Mariupol is holding out, but the situation is critical, the Ukrainian president’s office said. Russian forces have maintained a blockade there since the early days of the invasion, and dwindling numbers of Ukrainian defenders have held out against the siege.
Mariupol’s capture would allow Russian forces in the south, which came up through the annexed Crimean Peninsula, to fully link up with troops in the Donbas region, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
The battle for control of Mariupol has come at a horrific cost to trapped and starving civilians. Locals reported seeing Russian troops digging up bodies from residential courtyards and prohibiting new burials. It was unclear why.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed for more Western arms and a global embargo on Russian oil, and accused Russian troops occupying Ukrainian cities of terrorizing civilians.
“The occupiers think this will make it easier for them to control this territory. But they are very wrong. They are fooling themselves,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. “Russia’s problem is that it is not accepted — and never will be accepted — by the entire Ukrainian people. Russia has lost Ukraine forever.”
He also warned in an interview with CNN that “all of the countries of the world” should be prepared for the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use tactical nuclear weapons, an underlying fear ever since the invasion of Ukraine started on Feb. 24.
Zelenskyy estimated that 2,500 to 3,000 Ukrainian troops have died in the war, and about 10,000 have been injured. The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general said Saturday that at least 200 children have been killed since the start of the war, and more than 360 wounded.
The Russians also have taken captive some 700 Ukrainian troops and more than 1,000 civilians, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Saturday. Ukraine holds about the same number of Russian troops as prisoners and intends to arrange a swap with Moscow, but is demanding the release of civilians “without any conditions,” Vereshchuk said.
Russia’s warning of stepped-up attacks on Kyiv came after Russian authorities accused Ukraine on Thursday of wounding seven people and damaging about 100 residential buildings with airstrikes in Bryansk, a region bordering Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials have not confirmed striking targets in Russia. However, they claimed responsibility for destroying a key Russian warship with missiles earlier this week, in an important victory for Ukraine and symbolic defeat for Russia.
The Moskva sank Thursday after taking heavy damage. Moscow did not acknowledge any attack, saying only that a fire had detonated ammunition on board.
The sinking reduces Russia’s firepower in the Black Sea and seemed to symbolize Moscow’s fortunes in an eight-week invasion widely seen as a historic blunder following the Russian retreat from the Kyiv region and much of northern Ukraine.
After the withdrawal, bodies were abandoned in the streets of towns around Kyiv or given temporary burials. Andriy Nebytov, who heads the region’s police force, cited police data indicating 95% died from gunshot wounds, saying they were “simply executed in the streets.”
More bodies are being found every day under rubble and in mass graves, he added, with the largest number found in Bucha, more than 350.
The diplomatic chasm between Russia and the West deepened further Saturday, as Moscow barred British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and a dozen other top U.K. officials from entering the country in response to British sanctions.
Chernov reported from Kharkiv. Yesica Fisch in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Robert Burns in Washington and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Feature image via The Associated Press