Death toll climbs to 24 in Russian rocket strike on Ukrainian apartment block

Rescue workers on Monday pulled more bodies and some survivors from an apartment building destroyed by a missile strike that killed 24 people in eastern Ukraine, while a Russian bombardment killed at least three in the second largest city Kharkiv.

The civilian deaths drove home the human cost of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now in its fifth month as European capitals braced for more economic consequences, with supplies of Russian gas in question and sanctions on Moscow disrupting trade.

In the city of Chasiv Yar, rescuers made voice contact with two people in the wreckage of the five-storey apartment building demolished by a rocket on Saturday, and emergency services released video of workers pulling survivors from the concrete debris, where up to two dozen people had been trapped.

But the death toll also rose steadily as rescuers excavated, the State Emergency Service said.

A Reuters reporter saw rescuers lift one person from the ruins to a stretcher, and carry away two bodies in white bags. Nine people have been rescued so far, the emergency service said.

Monday’s artillery, multiple rocket launcher and tank attack on Kharkiv, further north, injured 31 people including two children, in addition to the three deaths, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said. At least one strike hit a residential building in the city, Reuters images show.

“I started screaming, ‘I am alive, please get me out!’” said Valentina Popovichuk, who said she was asleep when her building was hit three or four times in the early morning hours.

The attack on Chasiv Yar in Donetsk province was part of Russia’s push to capture all of the industrial Donbas region in the east, partly controlled by separatist proxies since 2014, after declaring victory in Luhansk province earlier this month.

Firefighters work at the site as smoke rises from a residential building damaged by a Russian military strike, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv, Ukraine July 11, 2022. (Reuters)
Firefighters work at the site as smoke rises from a residential building damaged by a Russian military strike, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv, Ukraine July 11, 2022. (Reuters)

Military experts say Russia is using artillery barrages to pave the way for a renewed push for territory by ground forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who says he aims to hand control of Donbas to the separatists, on Monday eased rules for Ukrainians to acquire Russian citizenship.

Kharkiv, in the northeast close to the Russian border but outside the Donbas, suffered heavy bombardment in the first few months of the war followed by a period of relative calm that has been shattered by renewed shelling in recent weeks.

Moscow denies targeting civilians but many Ukrainian cities, towns and villages left in ruins. Since the Feb. 24 invasion, attacks on a theatre, shopping center and railway station have caused many civilian deaths.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia had carried out 34 air strikes since Saturday, while his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said Moscow should be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism over the apartment bombing.

Dazed residents in Chasiv Yar retrieved personal belongings and told stories of their escape.

One survivor, who gave her name as Venera, said she had wanted to save her two kittens.

“I was thrown into the bathroom, it was all chaos, I was in shock, all covered in blood,” she said, crying. “By the time I left the bathroom, the room was full up of rubble, three floors fell down. I never found the kittens.”

Diplomatic faultiness

The war has exposed diplomatic faultlines across Europe and sent energy and food prices soaring. Applying a further phase of European Union sanctions against Russia, Lithuania on Monday expanded restrictions on trade through its territory to Russia’s Baltic coast exclave of Kaliningrad.

Europe’s dependence on Russian energy was preoccupying policymakers and the business world as the biggest pipeline carrying Russian gas to Germany began 10 days of annual maintenance. Governments, markets and companies are worried the shutdown might be extended because of the war.

Putin calls the conflict, Europe’s biggest since World War Two, a “special military operation” to demilitarize neighboring Ukraine and rid it of dangerous nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies say Putin’s war is an imperial-style land grab.

Wave of bombardments

Ukraine’s general staff said on Monday that Russia had launched a wave of bombardments as they seek to seize Donetsk, the other province in the Donbas, after taking Luhansk.

It said the widespread shelling amounted to preparations for an intensification of hostilities.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War said Russian troops were regrouping and that the heavy artillery fire was intended to set conditions for future ground advances by identifying Ukrainian weaknesses.

Russia’s defense ministry said its missiles struck ammunition depots in Ukraine’s central Dnipro region used to supply rocket launchers and artillery weapons.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the battlefield reports.

Ukraine is preparing a counter-attack in the south of the country where Russia seized territory early in the war.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk warned civilians in the Russian-occupied Kherson region in the south on Sunday to urgently evacuate. She gave no time frame for action.

“I know for sure that there should not be women and children there, and that they should not become human shields,” she said on national television.

Ukrainian forces recaptured the village of Ivanivka in the Kherson region, a Ukrainian infantry brigade said on Monday.

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