KYIV: Ukraine said as many as 50 people, including five children, were killed and many more were wounded and lost limbs in a rocket strike at a railway station packed with civilians fleeing the threat of a major Russian offensive in the country’s east.
As regional authorities scrambled to rush civilians out of harm’s way, a group of European Union leaders meanwhile visited Kyiv to offer President Volodymyr Zelenskiy support and assure him there will be a path to EU membership for Ukraine.
Zelenskiy called the strike on the station in Kramatorsk in the eastern region of Donetsk region a deliberate attack on civilians.
Regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said the death toll rose to 50 from an earlier reported 39 as some of the several dozen wounded had died after being taken to hospital or medical centers.
He said the station was hit by a Tochka U short-range ballistic missile that contained cluster munitions, which explode in mid-air, spraying small lethal bomblets over a wider area.
“They wanted to sow panic and fear, they wanted to take as many civilians as possible,” he said.
Read more: ‘Russia wants to take all Ukraine’
Reuters was unable to verify what happened in Kramatorsk.
The use of cluster munitions is banned under a 2008 convention. Russia has not signed the convention but has previously denied using such munitions in Ukraine.
The Russian defence ministry was quoted by RIA news agency as saying the missiles said to have struck the station were used only by Ukraine’s military and that Russia’s armed forces had no targets assigned in Kramatorsk on Friday.
Zelenskiy said no Ukrainian troops were at the station. “Russian forces (fired) on an ordinary train station, on ordinary people, there were no soldiers there,” he told Finland’s parliament in a video address.
Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksander Honcharenko estimated that about 4,000 people were at the station at the time of the attack.
“Some people have lost a leg, others an arm. They are now receiving medical assistance. The hospitals are carrying out about 40 operations simultaneously,” the mayor said in an online briefing.
The White House decried the “horrific and devastating images” of the station attack.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, in Kyiv with the head of the EU executive Ursula von der Leyen, also condemned the strike.
“This is yet another attempt to close escape routes for those fleeing this unjustified war,” he said on Twitter.
Ukrainian officials say Russia is regrouping forces after withdrawing from the capital Kyiv’s outskirts, for a new thrust to try to gain full control of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that have been partly held by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.