Ukraine demands 'firm global response' against Russia for deadly train station strike
Warning: This story contains photos and video that show bodies of the dead
Ukraine called for more weapons and harsher sanctions after it blamed Russia for a missile attack that killed at least 52 people at a train station packed with women, children and the elderly fleeing the threat of a Russian offensive in the east.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the strike in Kramatorsk in the eastern region of Donetsk a deliberate attack on civilians. The city's mayor estimated about 4,000 people were gathered there at the time.
The U.S., European Union and Britain condemned the attack which took place on the same day European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Kyiv to show solidarity and accelerate Ukraine's membership process.
"We expect a firm global response to this war crime," Zelensky said in a video posted late on Friday.
"Any delay in providing … weapons to Ukraine, any refusals, can only mean the politicians in question want to help the Russian leadership more than us," he said, calling for an energy embargo and all Russian banks to be cut off from the global system.
Regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said the station was hit by a Tochka U short-range ballistic missile containing cluster munitions, which exploded in mid-air, spraying small lethal bomblets over a wider area.
Reuters was unable to verify what happened in Kramatorsk.
Moscow's invasion, which started more than six weeks ago, has seen over four million people flee abroad, has killed or injured thousands, left a quarter of the population homeless and turned cities into rubble as it drags on for longer than Russia expected.
Cluster munitions are banned under a 2008 convention. Russia has not signed it but has previously denied using such armaments in Ukraine.
In Washington, a senior defence official said the United States was "not buying the denial by the Russians that they weren't responsible," and believed Russian forces had fired a short-range ballistic missile used in the attack.
The Russian defence ministry was quoted by RIA news agency as saying the missiles said to have struck the station were used only by Ukraine's military and that Russia's armed forces had no targets assigned in Kramatorsk on Friday.
Moscow has denied targeting civilians since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what Russia calls a "special military operation" to demilitarize and "denazify" its neighbour.
Kyiv and Western supporters call that a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.
Ukrainian officials now expect an attempt by Russian forces to gain full control of Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk, both partly held by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The Kremlin said on Friday the "special operation" could end in the "foreseeable future" with its aims being achieved through work by the Russian military and peace negotiators.
The White House said it would support attempts to investigate the attack in Kramatorsk, which Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it showed "the depths to which Putin's vaunted army has sunk."
At least 52 people have now died in the incident, Pavlo Kirilenko, head of the Donetsk regional military administration, said in an online post.
The wreckage of the missile bore the words "(this is) for the children" on its side. Russia has for years accused Ukraine of killing civilians including children with strikes in separatist-held eastern Ukraine.
As Russia concentrates on the east, Ukrainian forces there said late on Friday that they had repelled seven Russian attacks, destroying nine tanks, seven other armoured vehicles and two helicopters. Reuters could not independently verify that.
Following a partial Russian pullback near Kyiv, a forensics team on Friday began exhuming a mass grave in the town of Bucha. Authorities say hundreds of dead civilians have been found there.
Witnessing the 'unthinkable'
Visiting the town on Friday, von der Leyen said it had witnessed the "unthinkable."
She later handed Zelensky a questionnaire forming a starting point for the EU to decide on membership, telling him: "It will not as usual be a matter of years to form this opinion but I think a matter of weeks."
The bloc also overcame some divisions to adopt new sanctions, including bans on the import of coal, wood, chemicals and other products alongside the freezing of EU assets belonging to Putin's daughters and more oligarchs.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said a potential oil ban would be discussed on Monday, but called oil sanctions "a big elephant in the room" as the continent is heavily reliant on Russian energy.
The United States on Friday broadened its export curbs against Russia and ally Belarus, restricting access to imports of items such as fertilizer and pipe valves.
More military support for Kyiv
Kyiv wants deliveries of heavier armaments and on Thursday secured a new commitment from the NATO alliance to supply a wide range of weapons.
Slovakia has donated its S-300 air defence system to Ukraine, while Britain will send a further $130 million US of military support.
In Prague, defence sources said the Czech Republic had delivered tanks, rocket launchers, howitzers and infantry fighting vehicles, and would ship more.
Residents of areas north of Kyiv were meanwhile still coming to terms with the month-long occupation.
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In the village of Yahidne, residents recounted how more than 300 people were trapped for weeks in a school basement, with names of those who did not survive or were killed by soldiers scrawled on the wall.
Reuters was not able to verify independently the villagers' accounts. Reporters saw one freshly dug grave and two bodies wrapped in white plastic sheets.
Concerns about occupied station
Ukraine's Gas Transmission System Operator, which oversees the gas pipeline network that delivers about 20 per cent of the natural gas that Russia supplies to Europe, warned on Friday that the occupation of a compressor station in Novopskov in the Luhansk region of Eastern Ukraine threatened the integrity of the transmission system.
Russian forces and Moscow-backed separatist fighters took control of the station shortly after the start of Russia's invasion on Feb. 24 and are now interfering with the operation of the station, said CEO Sergiy Makogon.
"If we cannot operate the station remotely ... [and] we cannot control the equipment, it will create a significant threat to the mechanical integrity of the gas transmission system," he told CBC News by phone from western Ukraine.
The station impacts about one-third of the international gas supply transiting the country, he said. Russia supplied about 45 per cent of the European Union's natural gas imports last year.
"We officially warned Gazprom and, actually, warned Russia if they would continue to try to intervene in our technological processes, we will have to shut down the transit for that particular interconnection point," Makogon said.
Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy company that supplies the gas, could not be reached for comment, but Moscow has said in the past that it would guarantee the safety of operations and equipment at Novopskov, according to Reuters.
Makogon said cell communication in the area is limited but that staff has stayed in touch with the employees at the station. He said the workers said the authorities of the breakaway Luhansk region told them they intended to nationalize the compressor stations.
"Of course, they're very worried," he said. "So really, it's a very difficult situation, but they do all their best in order to continue the transportation of gas, even in these temporarily occupied territories."
With files from CBC News