Russian missiles kill at least 19 in Ukraine’s Odessa region

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Russian rocket attacks on residential areas in a coastal town near the Ukrainian port city of Odessa killed at least 19 people early Friday, authorities said, a day after Russian forces withdrew from a strategic island in the Black Sea.

Video of the attack before dawn showed the charred remains of buildings in the small town of Serhiivka, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Odessa. The Ukrainian president’s office said three X-22 missiles fired by Russian bombers hit an apartment building and two campsites.

“A terrorist country is killing our people. In response to defeats on the battlefield, they fight civilians,” said Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The Ukrainian security service said 19 people were killed, including two children. It said another 38, including six children and a pregnant woman, were hospitalized with injuries. Most of the victims were in the apartment building, Ukrainian emergency services said.

The airstrikes followed the withdrawal of Russian troops from Snake Island on Thursday, a move expected to reduce the threat to nearby Odessa, home to Ukraine’s largest port. The island is located along a busy shipping route.

Russia took control of it in the early days of the war in the apparent hope of using it as a staging area for an attack on Odessa. The Kremlin portrayed the departure of Russian troops from Snake Island as a “goodwill gesture” intended to facilitate the shipment of grain and other agricultural products to Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world.

The Ukrainian army demanded a barrage from its artillery and rockets forced the Russians to flee in two small speedboats. The exact number of retreating troops has not been disclosed.

The island gained significance early in the war as a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion. Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a request from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombed. The answer supposedly came back: “Go (expletive) yourself.”

Zelenskyy said that while the withdrawal does not guarantee the security of the Black Sea region, it would “significantly limit” Russian activities there.

“Step by step we will push (Russia) out of our sea, our land, our sky,” he said in his overnight speech.

In eastern Ukraine, Russian forces continued to encircle the last resistance stronghold in Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the country’s Donbas region. Moscow-backed separatists have controlled much of the region for eight years.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said the Russians were trying to surround the city of Lysychansk and fought for control of an oil refinery on the outskirts of the city.

“The shelling of the city is very intense,” Haidai told The Associated Press. “The occupiers are destroying house after house with heavy artillery and other weapons. Residents of Lysychansk hide in cellars almost around the clock.”

The offensive has so far failed to cut off Ukraine’s supply lines, although the main road to the west was not used due to constant Russian shelling, the governor said. “The evacuation is impossible,” he added.

But Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Friday that Russian and Luhansk separatist forces have taken over the refinery, as well as a mine and a gelatin factory in Lysychansk “in the past three days.”

Ukraine’s presidential office said a series of Russian attacks in the past 24 hours have also killed civilians in eastern Ukraine — four in the northeastern region of Kharkiv and another four in Donetsk province.

Russian bombings killed large numbers of civilians earlier in the war, including at a hospital and a theater in the port city of Mariupol. Mass casualties seemed to become less frequent as Moscow concentrated on conquering the Donbas region.

However, a rocket attack on Monday on a shopping center in Kremenchuk, a city in central Ukraine, killed at least 19 people and injured another 62, authorities said Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denied on Thursday that Russian troops had attacked the mall, saying his country is not making any civilian facilities. He claimed the target in Kremenchuk was a nearby weapons depot, echoing the comments of his military officials.

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