Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Civilian evacuations ramped up in areas of battle-hardened eastern Ukraine on Saturday, a day after a missile attack killed at least 52 people and wounded more than 100 at a train station, where thousands clamored to leave early under the Russian attack .
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for a tough global response to the attack on the Kramatorsk train station on Friday, 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 the efforts of the world will be directed to finding out every minute who did what, who gave what orders, where the missile came from, who transported it, who gave the order and how this strike was arranged,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address, his voice rising in anger.
Russia denied responsibility and accused the Ukrainian military of firing on the station to try to blame Moscow for civilian casualties. A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry explained the missile’s trajectory and Ukrainian troop positions to support the argument.
Western experts and Ukrainian authorities insisted Russia fired the gun. The words “For the children” in Russian were painted on the remains of the rocket. The wording seemed to indicate that the missile was sent to avenge the loss or subjugation of children, although its exact meaning remained unclear.
With trains not leaving Kramatorsk on Saturday, panicked residents boarded buses or looked for other ways to get out, fearing the relentless attacks and occupations by Russian invaders that left other cities in Ukraine with food shortages, destroyed buildings and death.
“It was terrifying. The horror, the horror,” said a resident of the British broadcaster Sky and remembered the attack on the train station. “Heaven forbid going through that again. No I do not want to.”
Ukraine’s state railway company said in a statement on Saturday that residents of Kramatorsk and other parts of the country’s contested Donbass region could flee via other train stations. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said ten evacuation corridors are planned for Saturday.
Russia has withdrawn its troops from northern Ukraine and focused on the Donbass after failing to capture the capital, Kyiv.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 the Ukrainian fighters continued to fend off attacks and, according to the West, held their ground.
On Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Zelenkyy met in Kyiv at Johnson’s office in what was “a show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people”. The unannounced visit, which came a day after Johnson pledged another £100m ($130m) in high-quality military equipment to Ukraine.
The attack on the train station came as Ukrainian authorities were working to identify victims and document possible war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in northern Ukraine. The mayor of Bucha, a city near Kyiv where vivid evidence of civilian killings surfaced after the Russians pulled out, said search teams were still finding the bodies of people working at close range in yards, parks and on city streets places were shot.
Workers dug up the bodies of 67 people from a mass grave near a church on Friday, 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 the February 24 invasion of Russia. A total of 176 children have been killed and 324 others injured in Ukraine since the war began, the country’s Attorney General’s Office said on Saturday.
Ukrainian authorities have warned they expect more mass killings once they reach the southern port city of Mariupol, also in Donbass, which has faced months of blockades and intense fighting.
As journalists, largely absent from the city, leaked 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 successfully take Mariupol but said Ukrainian defenders were still fighting. The city’s location on the Sea of Azov is crucial for building a land bridge from the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia captured from Ukraine eight years ago.
Some of the most gruesome evidence of atrocities yet has been found in Bucha and other towns around Kyiv, from which Russian troops have retreated in recent days. An international organization set up to identify the dead and missing from the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s is sending a team of forensic scientists to Ukraine to help name bodies.
In an excerpt from an interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes broadcast on Friday, Zelenskyy cited conversations 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 who talk to their parents about what they stole and who they kidnapped. There are records of (Russian) POWs who have admitted killing people,” he said. “There are pilots in prison who had maps of civilian targets to bomb. Investigations are also being carried out on the remains of the dead.”
Many civilians now trying to evacuate are used to living in or near a war zone, as Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces in the Donbass since 2014.
The same week that Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of separatist-controlled areas and said he plans to send troops to protect residents of the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region.
Although the Kramatorsk train station is located in Donbass territory controlled by the Ukrainian government, the separatists, who work closely with Russian troops, blamed Ukraine for the attack. Western experts, however, dismissed Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s claim that Russian forces “are not using Tochka-U missiles” as they hit the station.
The deaths of civilians at the train station prompted renewed expressions of outrage from Western leaders and promises that Russia would face further reprisals for its actions in Ukraine. On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry sought to counter the dominant international narrative by once again raising the specter of Ukraine spreading false flags and misinformation.
A ministry spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, claimed that Ukraine’s security services are preparing a “cynically staged” media operation in Irpin, another city near Kyiv. Konashenkov said the plan was to show – falsely, he said – more civilian casualties at the hands of the Russians and stage the assassination of a fake Russian intelligence team that intended to kill witnesses. The claims could not be independently verified.
Ukrainian officials have been pleading on an almost daily basis for Western powers to send in more arms and further punish Russia with sanctions, including banning Russian banks from the global financial system and a full European Union embargo on Russian gas and oil.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said during a visit to Kyiv on Saturday that he expected further EU sanctions against Russia but defended his country’s previous opposition to the halt to Russian gas supplies.
A package of sanctions imposed this week will “not be the last,” said the Chancellor, admitting that “as long as people are dying, any sanction is insufficient.” Austria is militarily neutral and not a member of NATO.
Nehammer was the last in a parade of top leaders from the 27-nation EU visiting Zelenskyy. The head of the EU executive, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, on Friday handed the Ukrainian president a questionnaire that could lead to Ukraine’s membership in the bloc of 27 member states.
Zelenskyy ironically promised to expedite an answer.
Anna reported from Bucha, Ukraine. Robert Burns in Washington, Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka in London, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.