ODESSA: Russian carried out missile strikes across southern and eastern Ukraine on Saturday, Ukrainian officials said, including one that destroyed the runway at the main airport in the strategic Black Sea port of Odesa.
Moscow has turned its focus toward Ukraine’s south and east after failing to capture the capital Kyiv in a nine-week assault that has flattened cities, killed thousands of civilians and forced more than 5 million to flee abroad.
Its forces have mostly occupied the eastern port of Mariupol and have captured the town of Kherson in the south, giving them a foothold just 100 km (62 miles) north of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.
West of Kherson in Odesa, which has so far been relatively unscathed in the war, a Russian missile strike launched from Crimea destroyed the runway at the main airport, said Maksym Marchenko, Odesda’s regional governor.
“Thank God no one was hurt. Anti-sabotage measures are being carried out in the region,” Marchenko said. Ukraine’s military said the airport could no longer be used.
There was no immediate comment on the strike from Moscow, whose forces have sporadically targeted Odesa, Ukraine’s third-largest city. Eight people were killed in a Russian strike on the city last week, Ukrainian officials said.
Moscow’s assault in the south is aimed in part at linking the area with Crimea as it pushes for complete control over Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Parts of Donbas’ two provinces, Luhansk and Donetsk, were already controlled by Russian-backed separatists before Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion.
In the town of Dobropillia in Donetsk, the shockwave from a strike on Saturday blew in the windows of an apartment building and left a large crater in the yard.
One resident, who gave only his first name of Andriy, said his partner was in a room facing the yard at the time of the attack and was knocked unconscious.
“Thank God the four children were in the kitchen,” he said, standing in the destroyed living room.
Residents sifted through their belongings to see what could be salvaged.
“At around 9:20 a.m. this happiness flew to our house,” another resident, Oleh, said sarcastically. “Everything is destroyed.”
Moscow calls its actions a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia launched an unprovoked war of aggression.
Despite weeks of peace talks, both sides looked to be as far apart as ever on Saturday.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said lifting Western sanctions on Moscow was part of the negotiations, but senior Ukrainian negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak denied this was the case.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, insists sanctions need to be strengthened and cannot be negotiated upon. He warned on Friday that talks could collapse due to what he called Russia’s “playbook on murdering people.”
Ukraine accuses Russian troops of carrying out atrocities as they withdrew from areas near Kyiv in early April. Moscow denies the claims. Negotiators last met face-to-face on March 29, and have since spoken by video link.
The United States and its European allies have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia’s economy and provided Ukraine with weapons and humanitarian aid.
US President Joe Biden is seeking a $33 billion aid package for Kyiv, including $20 billion for weapons, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday his country would continue “to give the Ukrainians the equipment they need to defend themselves.”
Lavrov said that if Washington and its partners in the US-led NATO military alliance truly wanted to resolve the crisis, they should stop sending weapons to Kyiv.
‘CANNOT GET THROUGH’
Russia reported more Ukrainian strikes on its territory on Saturday.
Officials in Russia’s Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine and Belarus, said air defenses had prevented a Ukrainian aircraft from entering. The resulting shelling had hit parts of a Russian oil terminal, they said.
South of Bryansk in the Russia’s Kursk region, also on the Ukrainian border, several shells were fired from Ukraine toward a Russian checkpoint, Kursk Governor Roman Starovoit said. There were no casualties or damage, he added.
Ukraine has not directly claimed responsibility for a spate of such incidents on Russian territory. But it described a series of blasts in Russia’s south on Wednesday as payback and “karma” for Moscow’s invasion.
In Ukraine, Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai said the Russians were shelling all over the region “but they cannot get through our defense.” He said civilians would continue to be evacuated despite the difficult situation.
Gaidai said two schools and 20 houses were destroyed by Russian attacks on Friday in the Luhansk towns of Rubizhne and Popasna.
Mykola Khanatov, head of military administration in Popasna, said two buses sent to evacuate civilians from the town were fired on by Russian troops on Friday and there was no word from the drivers. He did not say how many people were on the buses.
In besieged Mariupol, where United Nations efforts are underway to evacuate civilians and fighters holed up in a steel plant, 25 civilians, including six children, left the plant on Saturday, Russia’s TASS news agency reported.
It was unclear where the civilians had gone, and Reuters could not independently verify the report. Ukraine’s military said Russian planes struck Mariupol on Saturday, focusing on the steel plant.