ZAPORIZHZHIA, UKRAINE (REUTERS) – As many as 60 people were feared to have been killed in the Russian bombing of a village school in the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk, the regional governor said on Sunday (May 8).
Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian forces dropped a bomb on Saturday afternoon on the school in Bilohorivka where about 90 people were sheltering, causing a fire that engulfed the building.
“The fire was extinguished after nearly four hours, then the rubble was cleared, and, unfortunately, the bodies of two people were found,” Gaidai wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
“Thirty people were evacuated from the rubble, seven of whom were injured. Sixty people were likely to have died under the rubble of buildings.” Reuters could not immediately verify the report.
Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russian forces of targeting civilians in the war, which Moscow denies. In the ruined southeastern port city of Mariupol, scores of civilians have been evacuated from a sprawling steel plant in a week-long operation brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address late on Saturday that more than 300 civilians had been rescued from the Azovstal steelworks and authorities would now focus on trying to evacuate the wounded and medics. Other Ukrainian sources have cited different figures.
The Azovstal plant is a last hold-out for Ukrainian forces in a city now largely controlled by Russia, and many civilians had also taken refuge in its underground shelters. It has become a symbol of resistance to the Russian effort to capture swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Ukrainian fighters at the steel plant vowed on Sunday to continue their stand as long as they are alive.
“We will continue to fight as long as we are alive to repel the Russian occupiers,” Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, a deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, told an online conference.
“We don’t have much time, we are coming under intense shelling,” he said, pleading with the international community to help to evacuate wounded soldiers from the plant in Mariupol.
Russian-backed separatists said on Sunday a total of 182 civilians evacuated from the Azovstal plant had arrived at a temporary accommodation point in Bezimenne, in the area they control.
Those who wished to go to areas controlled by Ukraine were handed over to UN and ICRC representatives, they said.
In the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 230km northwest of Mariupol, dozens of people who had fled the port city and nearby occupied areas on their own or with the help of volunteers waited to be registered in a car park set up to welcome evacuees.
“There’s lots of people still in Mariupol, who want to leave but can’t,” said history teacher Viktoria Andreyeva, 46, who said she had only just reached Zaporizhzhia after leaving her bombed home in Mariupol with her family in mid-April.
“The air feels different here, free,” she said in a tent where volunteers offered food, basic supplies and toys to the new arrivals, many of whom were traveling with small children.
In an emotional address on Sunday for Victory Day, when Europe commemorates the formal surrender of Germany to the Allies in World War Two, Zelensky said that evil had returned to Ukraine with the Russian invasion, but his country would prevail.
Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the invasion he launched on Feb 24 a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and its allies say Russia launched an unprovoked war.
Mariupol is key to Moscow’s efforts to link the Crimean Peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014, and parts of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk that have been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since then.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said on Telegram he visited Mariupol on Sunday, the country’s most senior government figure to set foot in the city after weeks of Russian bombardment.
Khusnullin, who is in charge of construction and urban development, visited the commercial port there and said it should be used to bring in building materials to restore the city, according to the Russian defence ministry’s Zvezda TV channel.
Western show of support
US President Joe Biden and other G7 leaders were to hold a video call with Zelensky on Sunday in a show of unity ahead of Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on Monday.
US First Lady Jill Biden made an unannounced stop in Ukraine on Sunday, visiting a school that is serving as a temporary shelter and meeting her Ukrainian counterpart Olena Zelenska, according to a report by a Washington Post reporter shared with other media organizations.
“I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop and this war has been brutal and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine,” Biden said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also in Ukraine, making an unannounced visit to the town of Irpin, its mayor said on Telegram.
Trudeau was due to meet with President Zelensky on Sunday, the prime minister’s spokesman said.
“The prime minister is in Ukraine to meet with President Zelensky and reaffirm Canada’s unwavering support for the Ukrainian people,” said Cameron Ahmad, director of communications for Trudeau.
Putin sent Victory Day messages to separatist leaders in Luhansk and Donetsk, saying Russia was fighting shoulder to shoulder with them and likening their joint efforts to the war against Nazi Germany.
“Victory will be ours,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin press release on Sunday.
Russia’s efforts have been stymied by logistical and equipment problems and high casualties in the face of fierce resistance.
Putin will preside on Monday over a parade in Moscow’s Red Square of troops, tanks, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles, making a speech that could offer clues on the future of the war.
“They (the Russians) have nothing to celebrate tomorrow,” said US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield on CNN.
“They have not succeeded in defeating the Ukrainians. They have not succeeded in dividing the world or dividing Nato.”