At least 19 killed in Ukraine’s Odessa region by Russian missile attack

POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian missile attacks on residential areas killed at least 19 people in a Ukrainian town near Odessa early Friday, authorities said. The airstrikes pierced the cautious relief expressed a day earlier after Russian forces withdrew from a Black Sea island where they could have staged an assault on the city with Ukraine’s largest port.

Video of the pre-dawn attack showed the charred remains of buildings in the small town of Serhiivka, located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Odessa. The Ukrainian president’s office said three X-22 missiles fired by Russian bombers hit a building and two campsites.

“A terrorist country is killing our people. In response to battlefield defeats, they fight civilians,” said Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

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Large numbers of civilians died in Russian strikes and shelling early in the war, including at a hospital, a theater used as a bomb shelter, and a railway station. Until this week, mass casualties involving residents appeared to be becoming rarer as Moscow focused on capturing the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.

Asked about Friday’s strike, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Moscow’s assertion that it did not target residential areas during the war, now in its fifth month. The Russian military is trying to hit munitions depots, arms repair factories and troop training centers, he said.

According to the Ukrainian security services, 19 people died, including two children. He said 38 others, including six children and a pregnant woman, were hospitalized with injuries. Most of the victims were in the building, Ukrainian emergency officials said.

The airstrikes followed the withdrawal of Russian forces from Snake Island on Thursday, a move that could potentially lessen the threat to nearby Odessa, home to Ukraine’s biggest port. The island lies along a busy shipping lane.

Russia took control of it in the early days of the war in the apparent hope of using it as staging ground for an assault on Odessa. The Kremlin described 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.

The Ukrainian army called for a barrage from its artillery and missiles forced the Russians to flee in two small speedboats. The exact number of troops withdrawing has not been disclosed.

The island rose to prominence early in the war as a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion. Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a request from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombarded. The answer supposedly came back, “Go (expletive) yourself.”

Zelenskyy said that while the withdrawal would not guarantee the security of the Black Sea region, it would “significantly limit” Russian activities there.

“Step by step we will drive (Russia) out of our sea, our land, our sky,” he said in his evening speech.

In eastern Ukraine, Russian forces continued their push to encircle the last stronghold of resistance in Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbass region. Moscow-backed separatists have controlled much of the region for eight years.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the Russians were trying to surround the town of Lysychansk and were fighting for control of an oil refinery on the outskirts of the town.

“The bombardment 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 hide in basements almost around the clock.”

The offensive has so far failed to cut Ukrainian supply lines, although the main highway leading west has not been used due to constant Russian shelling, the governor said. “Evacuation is impossible,” he added.

But Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Friday that Russian and Luhansk separatist forces had seized control of the refinery as well as a mine and a gelatin factory in Lysychansk “in course of the last three days”.

Ukraine’s presidential office said a series of Russian strikes in the past 24 hours had also killed civilians in eastern Ukraine – four in the northeastern region of Kharkiv and four others in the province of Donetsk.

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In other developments, Zelenskyy asked Ukrainian lawmakers to speed up the legislation needed for the country to join the European Union. His government applied for EU membership after the February 24 Russian invasion. EU leaders made Ukraine a candidate for membership last week, acting with unusual speed and unity.

The process could take years or even decades, but Zelenskyy said in a speech to lawmakers that Ukraine could not wait.

“It took us 115 days to receive EU candidate status. Our path to full membership must not take decades,” he said. “You may know that some of your decisions will not be applauded, but such decisions are necessary for Ukraine to move forward on its path, and you must make them.”

On Friday in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin briefed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the conflict in Ukraine. According to a Kremlin statement, Putin accused Zelensky’s administration and Western supporters of Ukraine of trying to “aggravate the crisis and disrupt efforts to resolve it politically and diplomatically.”

Putin denied that Russian forces targeted a shopping center where Ukrainian authorities said a missile strike on Monday killed at least 19 people and injured 62 others. He said on Thursday that the target in Kremenchuk, a city in central Ukraine, was a nearby arms depot and that the Russian military does not target places occupied by civilians.

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