Civilians urged to leave Ukraine's east ahead of anticipated Russian attacks

Ukrainians rushed to leave the country's east amid warnings that Russia is planning a new offensive, as other countries' leaders pledge renewed support.

Britain's Boris Johnson meets Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky in surprise visit to Kyiv

Ukrainian refugees arrive by train from Odesa in the Polish city of Przemyśl on Saturday. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

Civilian evacuations moved forward in patches of battle-scarred Eastern Ukraine a day after a missile strike killed at least 52 people at a train station, where thousands were waiting to leave the increasingly vulnerable region before an expected Russian onslaught.

In the wake of the attack in Kramatorsk, several European leaders made efforts on Saturday to show solidarity with Ukraine, with the Austrian chancellor and British prime minister visiting Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv — the capital city that Russia failed to capture and where troops retreated days ago.

Ukrainian authorities have called on civilians to get out ahead of an imminent, stepped-up offensive by Russian forces in the east.

Trains were not running on Saturday out of Kramatorsk, which is located in the eastern region of Donetsk.

Instead, panicked residents boarded buses or looked for other ways to leave, fearing the kind of unrelenting assaults and occupations by Russian invaders that delivered food shortages, demolished buildings and death to other cities elsewhere in Ukraine.

"It was terrifying. The horror, the horror," one resident told British broadcaster Sky, recalling Friday's attack. "Heaven forbid, to live through this again. No, I don't want to."

Ukraine's state railway company said in a statement that residents of Kramatorsk and other parts of the country's contested Donbas region could flee through other train stations. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 10 evacuation corridors were planned for Saturday.

People wait for a bus in Kramatorsk in Eastern Ukraine on Saturday, a day after a rocket attack at a train station in the city killed at least 52 people. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

Zelensky called the train station attack the latest example of war crimes by Russian forces and said it should motivate the West to do more to help his country defend itself.

"All world efforts will be directed to establish every minute of who did what, who gave what orders, where the missile came from, who transported it, who gave the command and how this strike was agreed," Zelensky said in his nightly video address, his voice rising in anger.

Russia denied it was responsible and accused Ukraine's military of firing on the station to try to turn blame for civilian slayings on Moscow. A Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson detailed the missile's trajectory and Ukrainian troop positions to bolster the argument. Western experts and Ukrainian authorities insisted that Russia launched the missile.

Johnson, Zelensky meet in Kyiv

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer on Saturday joined the stream of European leaders showing their support for Ukraine by travelling to the nation's capital for face-to-face meetings with Zelensky.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walk through downtown Kyiv after Johnson's surprise visit to the capital on Saturday. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters)

Johnson's surprise visit included a pledge of new military assistance, including 120 armoured vehicles and new anti-ship missile systems. This came a day after he promised to send an additional £100 million ($164 million Cdn) of high-grade military equipment to Ukraine, saying Britain wanted to help the country defend itself against Russian aggression.

Johnson also confirmed further economic support, guaranteeing an additional $500 million US in World Bank lending to Ukraine, taking Britain's total loan guarantee to up to $1 billion.

The head of Ukraine's presidential office, Andriy Yermak, said that "the conversation was rich and constructive," but he offered no details.

As Zelensky makes a continuous round of virtual appearances to drum up support from lawmakers around the world, an increasing number of European leaders have decided the time is right to travel to Kyiv for in-person talks.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was in Kyiv on Friday, following earlier visits from the Czech, Polish and Slovenian prime ministers.

Trudeau co-hosts fundraising event

Von der Leyen, who heads the European Union's executive branch, travelled to Warsaw on Saturday to lead a fundraising event for Ukraine. She was joined by Polish President Andrzej Duda, with Zelensky and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appearing by video link.

At the end of the 90-minute meeting, von der Leyen said €10.1 billion ($13.8 billion Cdn) had been raised for Ukrainian refugees.

The event was held in Warsaw because more than 2.5 million of the 4.4 million people who have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion began on Feb. 24 have entered Poland. Many have stayed, though some have moved on to other countries.

European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, second from right at the table, presides at the Stand Up for Ukraine global fundraising event in Warsaw on Saturday. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, shown on a screen, appeared remotely. (Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press)

Trudeau spoke separately with Zelensky on Saturday, according to a readout released by the prime minister's office.

The pair discussed ways Canada could continue to help with Ukraine's ongoing need for military and financial assistance, and the two leaders agreed to "continue to stay in close touch," according to the statement.

Russia repositions

More than six weeks after Russia first invaded Ukraine, it has pulled its troops from the northern part of the country, around Kyiv, and refocused on the Donbas region in the east.

Western military analysts said an arc of territory in Eastern Ukraine was under Russian control, from Kharkiv — Ukraine's second-largest city — in the north to Kherson in the south.

But Ukrainian counterattacks are threatening Russian control of Kherson, according to the Western assessments, and Ukrainian forces are repelling Russian assaults elsewhere in the Donbas region in the southeast.

A fragment of a Tochka-U missile lies on the ground following Friday's attack on the railway station in Kramatorsk. (Andriy Andriyenko/The Associated Press)

Photos taken after Friday's missile strike showed corpses covered with tarpaulins, and the remnants of a rocket painted with the words "For the children" in Russian. The phrasing seemed to suggest the missile was sent to avenge the loss or subjugation of children, although its exact meaning remained unclear.

The attack came as Ukrainian authorities worked to identify victims and document possible war crimes by Russian soldiers in northern Ukraine. The mayor of Bucha, a town near Kyiv where graphic evidence of civilian slayings emerged after the Russians withdrew, said search teams were still finding the bodies of people shot at close range in yards, parks and city squares.

People wait to board buses to leave Kramatorsk on Saturday. (Andriy Andriyenko/The Associated Press)

On Friday, workers unearthed the bodies of 67 people from a mass grave near a church, according to Ukraine's prosecutor general. Russia has falsely claimed that the scenes in Bucha were staged.

The same week Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin recognized the independence of eastern areas controlled by the separatists and said he planned to send troops in to protect residents of the mostly Russian-speaking, industrial region.

Although the Kramatorsk train station is in Ukrainian government-controlled territory in the Donbas, the separatists, who work closely with Russian troops, blamed Ukraine for the attack.

WATCH | Missiles strike Ukraine train station, Kremlin denies responsibility. WarningThis video contains graphic images of violence: 

Missiles strike Ukraine train station, Kremlin denies responsibility

4 months ago
Duration 2:36
WARNING: This video contains graphic footage | Dozens are dead after two missiles hit packed crowds at a train station used to evacuate refugees in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. The Kremlin denied the attack, claiming its military forces had no access to the weapons used.

Western experts, however, dismissed Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov's assertion that Russian forces "do not use" Tochka-U missiles, the type that hit the station.

A Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said Russian forces have used the missile — and that given the strike's location and impact, it was likely Russia's.

Ukrainian authorities and Western officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of committing atrocities in the war that began with Russia's Feb. 24 invasion. A total of 176 children have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the war, while 324 more have been wounded, the country's Prosecutor General's Office said on Saturday.

WATCH | Chernihiv picks up pieces after Russia's withdrawal. Warning: This video contains graphic images:

Chernihiv picks up pieces after Russia’s withdrawal

4 months ago
Duration 2:53
WARNING: This video contains graphic footage | Residents in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv are just beginning to come to terms with the devastation left behind by Russian troops. The city’s morgue is struggling to keep up with the dead and hospitals are flooded with war victims.

Ukrainian authorities have warned that they expect to find more mass killings once they reach the southern port city of Mariupol, which is also in the Donbas and has been subjected to a month-long blockade and intense fighting.

As journalists who had been largely absent from the city began to trickle back in, new images emerged of the devastation from an airstrike on a theatre last month that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians seeking shelter.

Military analysts had predicted for weeks that Russia would succeed in taking Mariupol but said Ukrainian defenders were still putting up a fight. The city's location on the Sea of Azov is critical to establishing a land bridge from the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine eight years ago.

Some of the grisliest evidence of atrocities so far has been found in Bucha and other towns around Kyiv, from which Russian troops pulled back in recent days.

An international organization formed to identify the dead and missing from the 1990s Balkans conflicts is sending a team of forensics experts to Ukraine to help put names to bodies.

WATCH | Ukraine braces for assault in Donbas: 

Ukraine braces for Russian assault in Donbas, pressures NATO for more weapons

4 months ago
Duration 2:26
Attention is turning to Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where there’s anxiety a looming Russian assault could rival battles of the Second World War. To prepare, Ukrainian officials are making an urgent appeal to NATO allies for more heavy tanks.