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By ADAM SCHRECK and CARA ANNA
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – A missile hit a train station where thousands of Ukrainians had gathered on Friday, killing at least 50 and injuring dozens in an attack on a crowd of mostly women and children trying to flee another looming Russian offensive in the east of the country, Ukrainian authorities said.
The attack that some have accused as yet another war crime in the 6-week-old conflict came when workers exhumed bodies in a mass grave in Bucha, a town near Ukraine’s capital, where dozens of murders have already been documented following a Russian withdrawal.
Photos of the station in Kramatorsk showed the dead covered with tarps on the ground and the remains of a rocket with the words “For the children” painted on it in Russian. About 4,000 civilians were in and around the station at the time of the strike, heeding calls to leave the area before fighting intensifies in the Donbas region, Ukraine’s attorney general’s office said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other leaders accused the Russian military of deliberately attacking the station. Russia, in turn, blamed Ukraine, saying its forces are not using the kind of missile that hit the station — a dispute that experts dismissed.
“Without the strength or courage to withstand us on the battlefield, Russian troops are cynically destroying the civilian population,” Zelenskyy said on social media. “This is an evil without borders. And if it’s not punished, it never ends.”
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the regional governor of Donetsk, which is in the Donbas, said 50 people were killed, including five children, and dozens of others were injured.
“There are many people in serious condition, with no arms or legs,” said Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko. Even with 30 to 40 surgeons working to treat them, the local hospital was struggling to cope, he said.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace denounced the attack as a war crime, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it “completely unacceptable”.
“There are almost no words for it,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is visiting Ukraine, told reporters. “The cynical behavior (of Russia) has almost no measure anymore.”
Ukrainian authorities and Western officials have repeatedly accused the Russian armed forces of atrocities in the war that began with the Russian invasion on February 24 and has since forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee the country and displace millions more. Some of the most startling evidence of atrocities has come from towns around the Ukrainian capital where Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops have retreated in recent days.
In Bucha, Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said investigators have found at least three sites of mass shootings of civilians and are still finding bodies in yards, parks and city squares — 90% of whom were shot.
Russia has falsely claimed that the scenes in Bucha were staged.
On Friday, under the pouring rain, workers removed corpses from a mass grave at a church in the city, and placed black body bags in rows in the mud.
About 67 people were buried in the grave, according to a statement from Attorney General Iryna Venediktova’s office, which is investigating the deaths and other mass casualties involving civilians as possible war crimes.
In his nightly video speech, Zelenskyy warned that more horrors could be revealed. He said there had been atrocities worse than those in Bucha, in Borodyanka, another settlement outside the capital. 26 bodies were found there on Thursday.
“And what will happen when the world learns the whole truth about what the Russian troops did in Mariupol?” Zelenskyy said late Thursday, referring to the besieged southern port that suffered some of the greatest suffering during the Russian invasion.
The killings around Kiev came to light after Russian troops withdrew after failing to take the capital despite fierce Ukrainian resistance. Russian forces have now set their sights on the Donbas, a largely Russian-speaking industrial region in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years, controlling some areas.
A senior US defense official said Friday that the Pentagon believes some of the retreating units have been so badly damaged that they have been “wiped out for all intents and purposes.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal military assessments.
But the official did not say how many units suffered such extensive damage. Overall, the official said the US believes Russia has lost between 15% and 20% of its combat power since the start of the war. As some combat units withdraw to be resupplied in Russia, Moscow has added thousands of troops around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, he said.
The train station hit by the rocket attack on Friday is in Ukrainian government-controlled territory, but Russia insisted it was not behind the attack. The defense ministry accused Ukraine of carrying it out in a statement from state news agency RIA Novosti, as did Moscow-backed separatists in the region, who are working closely with Russian regular forces.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the country’s armed forces “don’t use” the type of missile that hit the station, but experts said they did, in fact, use it during the war.
An analyst added that only Russia would have reason to target rail infrastructure in the Donbas.
“The Ukrainian military is desperately trying to bolster units in the area…and the train stations in that area in Ukrainian-occupied territory are critical for moving equipment and people,” said Justin Bronk, a research associate at the Royal United Services. Institute in London.
Bronk pointed to other occasions when Russian authorities have tried to shift blame by claiming that their troops are no longer using an older weapon “to cloud the waters a bit and sow doubt”. He also suggested that Russia specifically chose the missile type because the Ukrainian military has it too.
A Western official, speaking anonymously to discuss intelligence, also said Russian armed forces have the missile used in the attack — and that given the location and impact of the attack, it was “probably” one of their own, though they could not formally attribute to Moscow.
The attacks come as Russia concentrates equipment and troops and ramps up shelling and bombing in anticipation of an expected attack, said Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region, which is in the Donbas.
“We feel the end of preparations for that huge breakthrough, for that great battle that will take place around us,” he said in a televised speech.
Ukrainian officials have pleaded with Western powers to send more weapons — and further sanction Russia — to stop the offensive. NATO countries agreed on Thursday to increase their arms stocks, and Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced Friday during a trip to Ukraine that his country has donated its Soviet-era S-300 air defense system to Ukraine.
US and Slovak officials said the US will then send a Patriot missile system to Slovakia.
Zelenskyy had called on S-300s to help the country “close the airspace” to Russian warplanes and missiles.
Heger accompanied von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, and Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, to Kiev, as part of the effort to signal EU support to Ukraine. After meeting Zelenskyy on Friday, von der Leyen handed the Ukrainian president a questionnaire that is a first step for applying for EU membership.
In anticipation of intensified attacks by Russian forces, hundreds of Ukrainians fled villages in the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions that were attacked or occupied.
“They are waiting for a big fight,” said Marina Morozova, who fled Kherson with her husband. The city was the first major city to fall to the Russians and is the scene of constant fighting as the Ukrainians work to recapture it.
Morozova, 69, said only Russian television and radio were available. The Russians handed out humanitarian aid, she said, and filmed the distribution.
Anna reported from Bucha, Ukraine. Robert Burns in Washington and Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka in London and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine