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People waiting to board buses during their evacuation in Kramatorsk, Ukraine today. Andriy Andriyenko

Prisoner exchange underway, and civilians flee eastern Ukraine town after train station attack

The station in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, was hit by a deadly missile strike yesterday.

UKRAINE HAS SAID that 12 Ukrainian soldiers and 14 civilians are returning home following a prisoner exchange with Russia.

“On the order of President (Volodymyr) Zelensky, the third prisoner exchange took place today. 12 of our servicemen are returning home, including one female officer,” deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Telegram.

Fourteen civilians including nine women were also on their way home, he added.

Meanwhile, evacuations resumed today from the town in eastern Ukraine where a missile strike killed 52 people at a train station as civilians fled a feared Russian offensive.

Six weeks into Russia’s invasion, Moscow has shifted its focus to eastern and southern Ukraine after stiff resistance ended plans to swiftly capture Kyiv.

Civilians trapped in the region have faced brutal conditions, and EU leaders met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a show of support as news emerged of the devastating attack on Kramatorsk’s station. The 52 victims included five children.

With thousands killed in fighting and more than 11 million fleeing their homes or the country, Zelenskyy said the strike marked a fresh atrocity and called for a “firm global response” to the bloody incident.

“This is another Russian war crime for which everyone involved will be held accountable,” he said in a video message.

World powers have already condemned Russia’s attack on Kramatorsk. We expect a firm global response to this war crime.

Zelenskyy later said he remained open to talks with Russia to resolve the conflict.

US President Joe Biden accused Russia of being behind a “horrific atrocity” in the de facto capital of the Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region, and France condemned the strike as a “crime against humanity”.

Moscow denied responsibility for the rocket attack on Friday morning, which killed 52 and injured a further 109 people, according to the latest official count.

The Ukrainian president said the bombing had been reported in Russia before the missiles had even landed and called for more weaponry to counter Moscow’s aggression.

“I am sure that the victory of Ukraine is just a matter of time, and I will do everything to reduce this time,” he added.

Minibuses assembled at a church in Kramatorsk to collect shaken evacuees today. Almost 80 people, most of them elderly, took shelter overnight in the building, not far from the targeted station.

The station in Kramatorsk was being used as the main evacuation hub for refugees from the parts of the eastern Donbas region still under Ukrainian control.

AFP reporters at the station saw the remains of the missile tagged in white paint with the words “for our children” in Russian. The expression is frequently used by pro-Russian separatists in reference to their losses since the start of the first Donbas war in 2014.

The governor of Donetsk claimed a missile with cluster munitions was used in the attack, according to remarks published by the Interfax news agency.

‘All this horror’

The strike came as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell were in Kyiv for talks with Zelenskyy and to visit the scene of civilian killings in Bucha.

Russia faces “decay” because of ever tougher sanctions and Ukraine had a “European future”, von der Leyen said at a news conference with Zelenskyy.

“My instinct says: If this is not a war crime, what is a war crime?” she said of the Bucha killings, calling for a thorough investigation.

Joining the Western solidarity campaign, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer arrived in Kyiv and was expected to travel to Bucha later today.

Russian troops appear to be seeking to create a long-sought land link between occupied Crimea and the Moscow-backed separatist territories of Donetsk and Lugansk in the Donbas region.

Civilians have been urged to flee the heavy shelling there that has laid waste to towns and complicated evacuation efforts.

The defence ministry in Moscow said Saturday that Russian forces had destroyed an ammunition depot in the Dnipro region, and struck 85 Ukrainian military targets in the previous 24 hours.

“There is no secret – the battle for Donbas will be decisive. What we have already experienced – all this horror – it can multiply,” warned Luhansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday.

In the south, the Black Sea port city of Odessa braced for rocket attacks, imposing a weekend curfew.

Residents and Ukrainian officials returning after a Russian withdrawal from an area near Kyiv, meanwhile, were taking stock of the scale of the devastation.

Bucha – where authorities say hundreds were killed, some with their hands bound – has become a byword for the brutality allegedly inflicted under Russian occupation.

But Zelenskyy warned worse was being uncovered.

“They have started sorting through the ruins in Borodianka,” northwest of Kyiv, he said. “It is much more horrific there. There are even more victims of Russian occupiers.”

Conflict in the area has wrought massive destruction and bodies are only now being retrieved, with 27 recovered from two destroyed buildings, according to Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova.

Fresh allegations also emerged from Obukhovychi, northwest of Kyiv, where villagers told AFP they were used as human shields.

‘Help us now’

Moscow has denied targeting civilians, but growing evidence of atrocities has galvanised Ukraine’s allies in the EU, which has approved an embargo on Russian coal and the closure of its ports to Russian vessels.

The bloc has frozen €30 billion euros in assets from blacklisted Russian and Belarusian individuals and companies, it said yesterday.

It also blacklisted Putin’s two adult daughters and more than 200 others as part of its latest sanctions package, according to an official list.

The United States and Britain had already sanctioned the Russian leader’s daughters.

Borrell has pledged the EU would supply €7.5 million to train Ukrainian prosecutors to investigate war crimes allegedly committed by Russia.

Ukraine has welcomed new pressure on Moscow, but it continues to push for harsher sanctions and more heavy weaponry.

“Either you help us now – and I’m speaking about days, not weeks – or your help will come too late and many people will die, many civilians will lose their homes, many villages will be destroyed,” foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said after meeting Nato foreign ministers in Brussels.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on a visit to Kyiv today vowed UK armoured vehicles and anti-ship missiles for Ukraine as he acclaimed its military for “the greatest feat of arms of the 21st century”.

“It is because of President (Volodymyr) Zelensky’s resolute leadership and the invincible heroism and courage of the Ukrainian people that (Vladimir) Putin’s monstrous aims are being thwarted,” he said after meeting Zelensky, according to a Downing Street statement.

Johnson set out extra military aid of 120 armoured vehicles and new anti-ship missile systems, “to support Ukraine in this crucial phase while Russia’s illegal assault continues”, the statement said.

That is on top of UK aid announced Friday of additional Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles and another 800 anti-tank missiles, along with “loitering” drones for “precision strikes” against the Russians. 

Slovakia said it had given Ukraine an S-300 air defence system.

As world powers held a fundraising round for Ukraine, Johnson also promised an extra $500 million via the World Bank.

Johnson said it had been a “privilege” to meet Zelensky in person on his surprise visit, which was not pre-announced in London.

“Ukraine has defied the odds and pushed back Russian forces from the gates of Kyiv, achieving the greatest feat of arms of the 21st century,” he said.

“I made clear today that the United Kingdom stands unwaveringly with them in this ongoing fight, and we are in it for the long run.”

Western companies have joined the bid to isolate Russia, with US video hosting service YouTube blocking the channel of the Russian lower house of parliament. Russian officials warned of reprisals.

As sanctions bite, credit rating agency S and P Global Ratings downgraded Russia’s foreign currency payments rating to “selective default” after Moscow paid a dollar-denominated debt in rubles this week.

© AFP 2022

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