Seven Russian rockets slammed into residential buildings in Zaporizhzhia before dawn on Thursday, killing seven people, with at least five others missing in the city close to Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant, the governor of the mostly Russian-occupied region said.
The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that the country’s military had retaken three more villages in one of the regions illegally annexed by Russia.
“Absolute meanness. Absolute evil,” President Zelensky said of the attacks, in a video speech to the inaugural summit of the European Political Community in Prague. “There have already been thousands of manifestations of such evil. Unfortunately, there may be thousands more.”
Governor Oleksandr Starukh wrote on his Telegram channel that many people had been rescued from the multi-storey buildings, including a three-year-old girl who was taken to hospital for treatment.
Zaporizhzhia is one of four regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed in violation of international laws on Wednesday, and is home to a nuclear plant that is under Russian occupation. The city of the same name remains under Ukrainian control.
The head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog is expected to visit Kyiv this week to discuss the situation at the Zaporizhzhia facility after Mr Putin signed a decree on Wednesday declaring that Russia was taking over the six-reactor plant.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called it a criminal act and said it considered the Russian leader’s decree “null and void”, State nuclear operator Energoatom said it will continue to operate the plant.
Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, plans to talk with Ukrainian officials about the Russian move. He will also discuss efforts to set up a secure protection zone around the facility, which has been damaged in the fighting and seen staff including its director abducted by Russian troops.
Mr Grossi will travel to Moscow for talks with Russian officials after a stop in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, leaders from more than 40 countries are meeting in Prague on Thursday to launch a “European Political Community” aimed at boosting security and prosperity across the continent, a day after the Kremlin held the door open for further land grabs in Ukraine.
Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “certain territories will be reclaimed, and we will keep consulting residents who would be eager to embrace Russia”.
He did not specify which additional Ukrainian territories Moscow is eyeing, and would not say if the Kremlin plans to organise more of the “referendums” in Ukraine that the Ukrainian government and the West have dismissed as illegitimate.
The precise borders of the areas Moscow is claiming remain unclear, but Mr Putin has vowed to defend Russia’s territory – including the annexed regions – with any means at his military’s disposal, including nuclear weapons.
In his nightly video address, President Zelensky said the Ukrainian army recaptured three more villages in the Kherson region. Novovoskrysenske, Novohryhorivka, and Petropavlivka are all situated north-east of Kherson.
Ukrainian forces are seizing back villages in Kherson in humiliating battlefield defeats for Russian forces that have badly dented the image of a powerful Russian military and added to the tensions surrounding an ill-planned mobilisation. They have also fuelled fighting among Kremlin insiders and left Mr Putin increasingly cornered.
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian military said the Ukrainian flag had been raised above seven Kherson region villages previously occupied by the Russians. The closest of the liberated villages to the city of Kherson is Davydiv Brid, some 60 miles (100km) away.
The deputy head of the Ukrainian regional government, Yurii Sobolevskyi, said military hospitals are full of wounded Russian soldiers and that Russian military medics lack supplies. Once they are stabilised, Russian soldiers are being sent to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
When Russian troops pulled back from the Donetsk city of Lyman over the weekend, they retreated so rapidly that they left behind the bodies of their comrades. Some were still lying by the side of the road leading into the city on Wednesday.
Lyman suffered heavy damage both during the occupation and as Ukrainian soldiers fought to retake it. Mykola, a 71-year-old man who gave only his first name, was among about 100 residents who lined up for aid on Wednesday.
“We want the war to come to an end, the pharmacy and shops and hospitals to start working as they used to,” he said. “Now we don’t have anything yet. Everything is destroyed and pillaged, a complete disaster.”
In his nightly address, a defiant Mr Zelensky switched to speaking Russian to tell the Moscow leadership that it has already lost the war that it launched on February 24.
“You have lost because even now, on the 224th day of full-scale war, you have to explain to your society why this is all necessary,” he said.
He said Ukrainians know what they are fighting for.
“And more and more citizens of Russia are realising that they must die simply because one person does not want to end the war.”