At least 15 people were killed in a Russian rocket attack on a five-story apartment building in the Ukrainian town of Chasiv Yar and perhaps another two dozen may be trapped in the rubble, Ukrainian officials said Sunday.
The Saturday night missile attack was the latest strike in recent weeks that left mass civilian casualties, although Russia contends it only targets Ukrainian military operations. The Chasiv Yar attack followed the deaths of at least 19 people at a shopping mall in Kremenchuk in late June and 21 at an apartment building and recreation area in the southern Odesa region this month.
Chasiv Yar is about 20 kilometers southeast of Kramatorsk, a city that is expected to be a major target of Russian forces as they push farther westward into Donetsk province after claiming victory a week ago in the adjoining Luhansk province.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region that includes Chasiv Yar, said the town of about 12,000 was hit by Uragan rockets, which are fired from truck-borne systems. Ukrainian emergency services said rescuers had made voice contact with at least three people trapped in the rubble of the apartment building.
Ukraine also reported heavy Russian missile and rocket strikes in the east and south Saturday. A missile strike on the northeastern city of Kharkiv wounded three civilians, its governor said, although Russia's main attacks appeared focused southeast of there in the eastern industrial region of the Donbas, the region composed of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.
Ukrainian officials reported strikes in both Luhansk and Donetsk, while Britain's Defense Ministry said Moscow was pulling reserve forces from across Russia and bringing them near Ukraine.
The operational pause announced days ago by Russia has not materialized, according to Ukrainian officials in the Donbas.
Kyrylenko said on the Telegram messaging service that a Russian missile had struck Druzhkivka, a town behind the front line, and reported shelling in other population centers.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on Telegram that Russian forces were "firing along the entire front line," though a subsequent Ukrainian counterattack that hit weapons and ammunition stores had forced Moscow to halt its offensive.
Russia, which claimed control over all of Luhansk province last weekend, denies targeting civilians.
To the south, the BBC reported, Ukrainian forces were fiercely defending Mykolaiv, a strategic river port on a key route to Odesa, which is Ukraine's main export hub. The Russian navy is still preventing Ukraine from shipping grain out of Odesa.
Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk has urged residents to leave Russian-occupied parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south. The warning appeared to herald further Ukrainian counterattacks.
Russia is unlikely to withdraw from a swath of land across Ukraine’s southern coast and will defeat Ukrainian forces in the whole of the eastern Donbas region, Russia's ambassador to Britain told Reuters Saturday.
When asked how the conflict might end, Russian Ambassador Andrei Kelin said it was difficult to see Russian and Russian-backed forces withdrawing from the south of Ukraine, and that Ukraine’s soldiers would be pushed back from all of Donbas.
"We are going to liberate all of the Donbas," Kelin told Reuters in an interview at his London residence. "Of course, it is difficult to predict the withdrawal of our forces from the southern part of Ukraine because we have already experience that after withdrawal, provocations start, and all the people are being shot and all that."
The Ukrainian government did not immediately comment on the Russian ambassador's remarks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said Ukraine will never accept Russian occupation of its territory and will fight on until the last Russian soldier is pushed out of Ukraine.
Britain’s Defense Ministry says Russia may be running out of the equipment necessary for its attacks on Ukraine.
Saturday, the ministry compared the latest vehicles Russia has deployed with its forces in Ukraine to tractors.
The MT-LB vehicle Russia is now sending into Ukraine, the ministry said, was “originally designed in the 1950s as a tractor to pull artillery, has very limited armor, and only mounts a machine gun for protection."
“Russian has long considered them unsuitable for most front-line infantry transport roles,” the ministry added.
Earlier Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he discussed Russian aggression in Ukraine during more than five hours of talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in which he raised concerns about Beijing's alignment with Moscow.
The meeting took place as officials attended a gathering of G-20 foreign ministers on the Indonesian island of Bali.
"I shared again with the state councilor that we are concerned about the PRC's alignment with Russia," Blinken said at a news conference after the talks, referring to the People's Republic of China. The top U.S. diplomat said he did not think China was behaving in a neutral way, as it had supported Russia in the United Nations and "amplified Russian propaganda."
Blinken said Chinese President Xi Jinping had made it clear in a call with President Vladimir Putin on June 13 that he stood by a decision to form a partnership with Russia.
U.S. officials have warned of consequences, including sanctions, should China offer material support for the war that Moscow calls a "special military operation" to degrade the Ukrainian military. Kyiv and its Western allies say the invasion is an unprovoked land grab.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian soldiers are in Britain to receive training on the front-line skills needed to battle the Russian forces that have invaded Ukraine. About 1,000 Ukrainians in Britain, the first of about 10,000 expected to participate in the program developed by the British army.
"Using the world-class expertise of the British army we will help Ukraine to rebuild its forces and scale up its resistance as they defend their country's sovereignty and their right to choose their own future,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said, who met with some of the Ukrainian troops.
New weapons package
U.S. officials Friday unveiled a new $400 million military package for Ukraine, including four more High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and 1,000 rounds of 155 mm “precision capable” artillery ammunition, a type that has not been provided to Kyiv until now.
In addition to the new HIMARS and the precision artillery rounds, the new U.S security package also includes more ammunition for the eight HIMARS already in Ukraine, tactical vehicles, demolition munitions, counter battery systems and spare parts to help Ukrainian forces maintain systems that are getting heavy use.
“These [weapons systems] are precise,” a senior U.S. defense official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Pentagon. “We expect them to be used by the Ukrainians to great effect given their success so far.”
Zelenskyy thanked the Biden administration on Twitter for the military equipment, which he described as priority needs.
“It offers Ukraine precise targeting, precise capability for specific targets. It will save ammunition. It will be more effective due to the precision,” the U.S. official said. “So, it's a further evolution in our support for Ukraine in this battle in the Donbas.”
U.S. officials have been quick to praise Ukrainian forces for the way they have integrated an earlier shipment of eight HIMARS into their efforts to slow the Russian advance in the Donbas.
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this story. Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.