MYKOLAIV, UKRAINE (AFP) - Russian air raids on Mykolaiv were taking place in quick succession on Saturday (March 19), a regional official said, a day after a deadly strike on a military barracks in the southern Ukrainian city.
Vitaly Kim, head of the regional administration, said there wasn’t even enough time to raise the alarm over the raids “because by the time we announce this tornado, it’s already there”.
“The (alert) message and the bombings arrive at the same time,” he said on social media.
He gave no details about the extent of the damage or on any possible victims.
Dozens of soldiers were killed after Russian troops struck the military barracks in Mykolaiv early on Friday, witnesses told AFP on Saturday, as a rescue operation was under way.
Authorities have not yet released an official death toll. A New York Times report put the toll at more than 40 dead.
Ukrainian authorities say that Mykolaiv, which they describe as being a “shield” to the key strategic military port of Odessa, some 130 kilometres further west, is resisting Russian attacks and pushing back the invaders’ assaults.
One soldier, his face caked caked in dust, leaving only his blue eyes just about visible, was rescued after a journalist at the scene heard sounds coming from within the debris and called rescuers.
They shifted piles of rubble with their bare hands for an hour before managing to extricate the man. Despite being in shock, he tried gamely to speak with the stretcher bearers as they carried him away.
Witnesses to the attack told AFP that six rockets hit the site, which originally had served as a young officers’ academy, around six o’clock in the morning on Friday.
“An enormous explosion,” says one resident, Nikolai. The blast reduced to rubble several buildings in the district.
“No less than 200 soldiers were sleeping in the barracks,” says Maxim, 22, who had been stationed nearby and looks on aghast at the scale of the destruction.
“At least 50 bodies have been pulled out but we don’t know how many remain under the debris,” he says.
Another soldier, Yevgeny, says as many as 100 people could have been killed, in an attack for which the details remain hazy.
“We aren’t allowed to say anything because the rescue operation isn’t over and the families haven’t all been informed,” military spokeswoman Olga Malarchuk says, first in Ukrainian before switching to Russian.
Visibly moved, she continues: “We are not yet able to announce a toll and I cannot tell you how many soldiers were present.”
Ukraine’s presidency is not answering questions about the bombing.
“Yesterday, orcs hit our sleeping soldiers with a rocket in a cowardly manner,” Vitaly Kim, head of the regional administration, said in a video, using the Ukrainian nickname for Russian forces.
He added that he was awaiting official information from the armed forces.
Rescuers and firefighters have been relentlessly working at the razed site since Friday, accompanied by the throbbing sound of an excavator clearing the enormous heap of stones, concrete and twisted metal rods.
An arm covered in blood and a piece of human torso are laid on a tarpaulin by the rescuers.
Further on, three bodies, including one covered in a white sheet, have been moved away from the rubble.
The victims’ military bags and bulletproof vests lay gathered together in the corner.
A few metres from the destroyed barrack, another, less damaged building still houses a dormitory and some offices.
All the windows have been blown out but a small painting of a religious icon as well as photos of soldiers are still hanging on the wall.
A grey stone statue, depicting a sailor leaning on a gun, ships in the background, remains standing amid the scene of desolation.
Probably destined to have been placed at the entrance of the bombed barracks, a poem is visible on it.
Its first words read: “Fight! You’ll win.”