Kyiv: Missile strikes killed 19 people and wounded dozens in Ukraine’s Odessa region Friday, a day after Russian troops abandoned positions on a strategic island in a major setback to the Kremlin’s invasion.
Two children were among the dead and six others among the injured, Ukrainian officials said, one day after US President Joe Biden announced $800 million in new weapons for Kyiv at a NATO summit.
The missiles slammed into an apartment building and a recreation centre early Friday in the town of Serhiivka about 80 kilometres south of the Black Sea port of Odessa, which has become a strategic flashpoint in the conflict.
“The death toll is 19 people,” wrote Sergiy Kruk, head of the Ukrainian emergency services, on Facebook. Thirty-eight people were wounded, including six children, he added.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a senior official at the Ukrainian presidency, earlier put the death toll at 18, including two children.
The strikes were launched by aircraft that flew in from the Black Sea, said Odessa military administration spokesman Sergiy Bratchuk.
“The worst-case scenario played out and two strategic aircraft came to the Odessa region,” he said in a TV interview, adding they had fired “very heavy and very powerful” missiles.
There was no immediate comment from Russia on the strikes.
The strikes follow global outrage earlier this week when a Russian strike destroyed a shopping centre in Kremenchuk, central Ukraine, killing at least 18 civilians. President Vladimir Putin has denied Moscow’s forces were responsible.
On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed a “new” chapter of “history” with the European Union, after Brussels recently granted Ukraine “candidate status” in Kyiv’s push to join the 27-member bloc, even if membership is likely years away.
“We’re not close. Now we are together,” he told Ukraine’s parliament.
“We made a journey of 115 days to candidate status and our journey to membership shouldn’t take decades. We should make it down this road quickly,” Zelensky said.
One day earlier he announced Ukraine had begun exporting electricity to the EU, via Romania, as fears grow of an energy crisis in Europe due to reduced Russian gas deliveries.
The president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen told Ukrainian lawmakers Friday that membership was “within reach” but urged them to make anti-corruption reforms.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, four people died and three were wounded in shelling in Izium and Chuguiv, two districts of the Kharkiv region of north-eastern Ukraine in the last 24 hours, said Oleg Synegubov, Kharkiv chief of district on Telegram.
Ukrainian officials also accused Russian forces of shelling relentlessly the city of Lysychansk in the eastern Donbas region.
Capturing the city would allow the Russians to push deeper in the Donbas, which has become the focus of their offensive since failing to capture Kyiv after their February invasion.
Donbas under fire
Sergiy Gaiday - governor of the Lugansk region, which includes Lysychansk - said the city continued to face heavy shelling.
“Evacuation from Lysychansk is not possible for now,” he said. “The town is being ruined constantly,” he added.
On Thursday, Russian troops abandoned their positions on Snake Island, which had become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in the first days of the war and was also a strategic target, sitting aside shipping lanes near the port of Odessa.
Russia had attempted to install missile and air defence batteries while under fire from drones.
Zelensky said Russia’s decision to abandon Snake Island “changes the situation in the Black Sea considerably”.
“It does not yet guarantee security. It does not yet guarantee that the enemy will not return. But it already considerably limits the actions of the occupiers,” he said.
The Russian defence ministry described the retreat as “a gesture of goodwill” meant to demonstrate that Moscow will not interfere with UN efforts to organise protected grain exports from Ukraine.
In peacetime, Ukraine is a major agricultural exporter, but Russia’s attack has damaged farmland and seen Ukraine’s ports seized, razed or blockaded - sparking concerns about food shortages, particularly in poor countries.
Western powers have accused Putin of using the trapped harvest as a weapon to increase pressure on the international community, and Russia has been accused of stealing grain.
The conflict in Ukraine dominated the NATO summit in Madrid this week, as the alliance officially invited Sweden and Finland to join, and Biden announced new deployments of US troops, ships and planes to Europe.
On Thursday, Biden vowed that the United States and NATO would “stick with Ukraine, as long as it takes to make sure they are not defeated by Russia”.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared surging diplomatic tensions to the Cold War.
“As far as an Iron Curtain is concerned, essentially it is already descending... The process has begun,” he told reporters.
On Thursday, a ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of grain sailed from Ukraine’s occupied port of Berdyansk, said the regional leader appointed by the Russian occupation forces.
Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the pro-Moscow administration, said Russia’s Black Sea ships “are ensuring the security” of the journey, adding that the port had been de-mined.