Rescuers pull survivors from ruined Ukrainian apartment building

·5 min read

By Anna Voitenko and Tom Balmforth

CHASIV YAR, Ukraine/KYIV (Reuters) - Rescuers pulled survivors on Monday from an apartment block destroyed by a Russian missile strike that killed 31 people in eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said while lamenting Moscow's firepower advantage despite billions in Western aid.

The civilian deaths hammered home the human cost of Russia's invasion, now in its fifth month, as Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces push to capture all of Ukraine's industrial Donbas region after declaring victory in one of its two provinces this month.

In the city of Chasiv Yar, rescue workers made voice contact with two people in the wreckage of the five-storey building demolished on Saturday. Video showed them pulling survivors from the debris, where up to two dozen people had been trapped.

But the death toll also rose steadily, Ukraine's State Emergency Service said, as more bodies were pulled from under ruined concrete. In a nightly address, Zelenskiy said 31 people had been killed and nine saved from the rubble.

One survivor, who gave her name as Venera, said she had wanted to save her two kittens.

"I was thrown into the bathroom, it was all chaos, I was in shock, all covered in blood," she said, crying. "By the time I left the bathroom, the room was full up of rubble, three floors fell down.

"I never found the kittens."

Rescuers could be seen lifting one person from the ruins to a stretcher, and carrying away two bodies in white bags.

Military experts say Russia is using barrages like the one on Chasiv Yar in Donetsk province to pave the way for a renewed push for territory by ground forces, after claiming victory in Luhansk province on July 4. Both have been partly controlled by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

Putin, who says he aims to hand control of Donbas to the separatists, on Monday eased rules for Ukrainians to acquire Russian citizenship.

"(Russia) indeed unfortunately has a big advantage in artillery," President Zelenskiy told reporters in Kyiv earlier on Monday alongside Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

"With all the partners who are ready to give support, I talk about artillery. There is indeed not enough."

A spokesman for Ukraine's International Legion, a fighting unit of foreign troops, said Ukraine's heavy artillery was outnumbered roughly eight to one by Russian guns.

Reuters could not independently verify battlefield accounts.

'I SAW LIGHTS'

Further north in the second-largest city of Kharkiv, Russian artillery, rocket and tank attacks killed three and injured 31, including two children, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said.

At least one strike hit a residential building in the city, where a column of flats had collapsed into rubble.

"I saw lights, the headlights of rescuers and I started screaming 'I am alive, please get me out'," survivor Valentina Popovichuk told Reuters on a nearby Kharkiv street.

She was asleep when her building was hit three or four times in the early morning. "The rescuers entered the hallway, knocked down the door and took me out."

Kharkiv, in the northeast close to the Russian border but outside the Donbas, suffered heavy bombardment in the first few months of the war followed by a period of relative calm that has been shattered by renewed shelling in recent weeks.

Moscow denies targeting civilians but many Ukrainian cities, towns and villages have been left in ruins. Since the Feb. 24 invasion, attacks on a theatre, shopping centre and railway station have caused many civilian deaths.

Zelenskiy said Russia had carried out 34 air strikes since Saturday.

DIPLOMATIC FAULTLINES

The war has exposed diplomatic faultlines across Europe and sent energy and food prices soaring.

The West aims to reopen Ukraine's Black Sea ports, which it says are shut by a Russian blockade, halting exports from one of the world's main sources of grain and threatening to exacerbate global hunger.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has offered to mediate on the grain issue, discussed it with Putin by telephone. The Kremlin said the talks took place in the run-up to a Russian-Turkish summit scheduled for the near future.

A summit with Erdogan would potentially be Putin's first face-to-face meeting with a leader of a NATO country since the invasion, and were it to take place in Turkey, it would also be his first trip outside the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Europe's dependence on Russian energy was preoccupying policymakers and businesses as the biggest pipeline carrying Russian gas to Germany began 10 days of annual maintenance. Governments, markets and companies are worried the shutdown might be extended because of the war.

Putin calls the conflict, Europe's biggest since World War Two, a "special military operation" to demilitarise Ukraine and rid it of dangerous nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies say Putin's war is an imperial-style land grab.

WAVE OF BOMBARDMENTS

Ukraine's general staff said Russia had launched a wave of bombardments as they seek to seize Donetsk. It said the widespread shelling amounted to preparations for an intensification of hostilities.

Russia's defence ministry said its missiles struck ammunition depots in Ukraine's central Dnipro region used to supply rocket launchers and artillery weapons.

Ukraine is preparing a counter-attack in the south of the country where Russia seized territory early in the war.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk warned civilians in the Russian-occupied Kherson region in the south on Sunday to urgently evacuate. She gave no time frame.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Frank Jack Daniel, Nick Macfie and Rami Ayyub; editing by Mark Heinrich, Peter Graff and Aurora Ellis)

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