The Kremlin has been accused of carrying out a “monstrous” war crime after a Russian ballistic missile hit a crowded train station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, killing at least 50 people including four children.
The powerful Tochka-U rocket landed outside the main station building where 4,000 people were waiting to be evacuated on Friday. The authorities had urged residents to leave the region before a Russian military assault expected from next week.
At least 87 people were wounded in the strike, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of Donetsk Oblast. Many lost limbs. Surgeons at the city’s hospital were struggling to cope, with numerous patients in a critical condition, Kyrylenko said.
He said Russia had used cluster munitions, and its goal was to “sow panic and fear” and to kill as many civilians as possible. “The enemy knew that this is a city, that this is a crowd of people, this is a railway station,” he said.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, angrily accused Moscow of “murderous deliberate slaughter” and vowed: “We will bring each war criminal to justice.”
At the scene, one woman, Natalia, said she heard a “double explosion”. She told AFP: “I rushed to the wall for protection. I saw people covered in blood coming into the station and bodies everywhere on the ground. I don’t know if they were injured or dead.”
Another woman said she was looking for her husband. “He was here. I can’t reach him,” she said.
TO video shot in the seconds after the explosion revealed a scene of horror. Bodies lay in the station entrance and between a row of outside seats. There were screams and cries for help. “My lord, so many corpses,” one woman said.
The dead lay next to their luggage, which had been packed for a journey that was meant to take them to the west of the country and to safety. A turquoise pram was abandoned, together with carry-on suitcases and travel pillows. Pools of blood stained the ground.
In a post on his Telegram channel, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said “Russian monsters” were responsible for the carnage. I have suggested it was part of a deliberate Russian strategy to destroy civilian targets, including hospitals and schools.
“[They] have not abandoned their methods. Lacking the strength and courage to fight with us on the battlefield, they are cynically destroying the civilian population,” Zelenskiy wrote, posting photos from the scene.
He added: “This is an evil that has no limits. And if it is not punished, it will never stop.” He said no Ukrainian troops were at the station when it was hit.
Boris Johnson said Russia’s actions were “unconscionable” and a war crime. Speaking at a press conference with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, he said Moscow should declare a ceasefire and withdraw its troops. “The war has to stop immediately,” Johnson said.
The giant missile landed on a patch of grass. Written on the side in large white Cyrillic letters were the words: “For [the] children” – a grimly ironic Russian propaganda slogan given that four children died in the strike, as well as many parents.
Four cars were destroyed. Bodies were loaded into a military truck. Rescue workers extinguished a fire, with a pall of gray smoke enveloping the area. Most of those who gathered at the station were women, children and elderly people.
Vladimir Putin has justified his invasion of Ukraine by citing the need to protect Russian-speaking civilians in the Donbas region. After failing to capture Kyiv, he has seemingly scrapped plans to topple his pro-western government. Moscow says it now intends to concentrate its offensive military operations in the east.
The apparent goal is to expand the territory administered by pro-Russia separatists from the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics. Key targets are the adjacent Kyiv-controlled cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, a major hub for Ukraine’s defending troops.
If Putin succeeds in occupying the administrative borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, he may seek a peace deal, Ukrainian officials believe. They say Russia’s president wants to declare victory in Ukraine in time for 9 May, when a Red Square parade celebrates the Soviet army’s defeat of Hitler.
Some initial reports on Russia state media said the missile fired at Kramatorsk hit a military transport target. Subsequently Moscow denied responsibility for the strike. It then blamed Ukrainian forces.
Those who perished were waiting to board trains to take them out of the war zone. “This is a deliberate attack on the passenger infrastructure of the railway and the residents of Kramatorsk,” the head of Ukraine’s railway company, Alexander Kamyshin, wrote on Twitter.
Some queuing outside the station had come from frontline towns that have been repeatedly shelled since 2014, when Moscow instigated an uprising in the industrial Donbas area – towns such as Avdiivka, Maryinka and Vuhledar, all now under intense fire.
Friday’s attack was also a deliberate message to European leaders visiting Kyiv, said Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, her deputy, Josep Borrell, and the European Council president, Charles Michel, traveled to the capital by train using the network Russia blew up.
“You have to take into account that there were evacuations from Kramatorsk every day. Only today, when high-ranking European leaders are in Kyiv, do they decide to kill so many people, exactly knowing that there is an evacuation going on,” Vereshchuk said, calling for further sanctions on Russia.
Von der Leyen described the strike as despicable. “I am appalled by the loss of life. My thoughts with the families of the victims,” she said. She and her colleagues met in person with Zelenskiy. It was the highest-ranking European delegation since Russia’s invasion on 24 February.
Borrell said he “strongly condemned” Russia’s “indiscriminate” actions. “This is yet another attempt to close escape routes for those fleeing this unjustified war and cause human suffering,” he tweeted.
There seems little doubt Russia is determined to disrupt transport links to and from the east before an imminent large-scale military action. Earlier this week it bombed Kramatorsk and severed the rail connection by hitting the line near Sloviansk. Three trains were delayed. The track was later repaired.
On Wednesday all three of the region’s governors urged civilians to leave while they still could. Russia is pressing from the north and the city of Izyum and is seeking to advance from the south and the port city of Mariupol, which has been sieged for over a month. The pincer movement, if successful, would trap Ukraine’s army.