Russian missile attacks on residential areas in a coastal town near the Ukrainian port city of Odesa early Friday killed at least 19 people, authorities reported, a day after Russian forces withdrew from a strategic Black Sea island.
Video of the pre-dawn attack showed the charred remains of buildings in the small town of Serhiivka, about 50 kilometres southwest of Odesa. The Ukrainian president's office said three X-22 missiles fired by Russian bombers struck an apartment building and two campsites.
“A terrorist country is killing our people. In response to defeats on the battlefield, they fight civilians," Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
Ukraine’s Security Service said 19 people died, including two children. It said another 38, including six children and a pregnant woman, were hospitalized with injuries. Most of the victims were in the apartment building, Ukrainian emergency officials said.
The airstrikes followed the pullout of Russian forces from Snake Island on Thursday, a move that was expected to potentially ease the threat to nearby Odesa, home to Ukraine’s biggest port. The island sits along a busy shipping lane.
Russia took control of it in the opening days of the war in the apparent hope of using it as a staging ground for an assault on Odesa. The Kremlin portrayed the departure of Russian troops from Snake Island as a “goodwill gesture” intended to facilitate shipments of grain and other agricultural products to Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world.
Ukraine’s military claimed a barrage of its artillery and missiles forced the Russians to flee in two small speedboats. The exact number of withdrawing troops was not disclosed.
The island took on significance early in the war as a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion. Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a demand from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombed. The answer supposedly came back, “Go (expletive) yourself.”
Zelenskyy said that although the pullout did not guarantee the Black Sea region’s safety, it would “significantly limit” Russian activities there.
“Step by step, we will push (Russia) out of our sea, our land, our sky,” he said in his nightly address.
In eastern Ukraine, Russian forces kept up their push to encircle the last stronghold of resistance in Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the country's Donbas region. Moscow-backed separatists have controlled much of the region for eight years.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the Russians were trying to encircle the city of Lysychansk and fighting for control over an oil refinery on the city’s edge.
“The shelling of the city is very intensive,” Haidai told The Associated Press. “The occupiers are destroying one house after another with heavy artillery and other weapons. Residents of Lysychansk are hiding in basements almost round the clock.”
The offensive has failed so far to cut Ukrainian supply lines, although the main highway leading west was not being used because of constant Russian shelling, the governor said. “The evacuation is impossible,” he added.
But Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Friday that Russian and Luhansk separatist forces had taken control of the refinery as well as a mine and a gelatin factory in Lysychansk “over the last three days.”
Ukraine’s presidential office said a series of Russian strikes in the past 24 hours also killed civilians in eastern Ukraine - four in the northeastern Kharkiv region and another four in Donetsk province.
Russian bombardments killed large numbers of civilians earlier in the war, including at a hospital and a theater in the port city of Mariupol. Mass casualties had appeared to become more infrequent as Moscow concentrated on capturing the Donbas region.
However, a missile strike Monday on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, a city in central Ukraine, killed at least 19 people and injured another 62, authorities said Friday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday denied that Russian forces targeted the shopping mall, saying that his country doesn’t hit civilian facilities. He claimed the target in Kremenchuk was a nearby weapons depot, echoing the remarks of his military officials.