Ukraine prepares for ‘hard battle’ in country’s east as rail attack death toll rises to 52

Boris Johnson pledges to send more weapons as he meets Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv

Ukraine is ready for a tough battle with Russian forces amassing in the east of the country, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Saturday, a day after a missile attack on a train station in his country's east that officials said killed more than 50 civilians trying to evacuate.

“Yes, [Russian] forces are gathering in the east [of Ukraine],” Mr Zelenskiy told a joint news conference with Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer in Kyiv. “This will be a hard battle, we believe in this fight and our victory. We are ready to simultaneously fight and look for diplomatic ways to put an end to this war,” Mr Zelenskiy added.

Mr Zelenskiy also met British prime minister Boris Johnson in Kyiv on Saturday, with the British leader using the visit to set out a new financial and military aid package for Ukraine.

During the British prime minister's surprise visit, Mr Johnson told Mr Zelenskiy that Britain would provide armoured vehicles and anti-ship missile systems to Ukraine, along with additional support for World Bank loans. Britain also will continue to ratchet up its sanctions on Russia and move away from using Russian hydrocarbons, he said.

Air-raid sirens sounded in cities across eastern Ukraine, which has become the focus of Russian military action in recent weeks following a withdrawal of Russian troops from areas close to Kyiv.

After Friday’s missile strike on a train station crowded with women, children and the elderly trying to evacuate in the Donetsk region city of Kramatorsk, officials urged civilians in the neighbouring Luhansk region to flee.

“They [Russian forces] are amassing forces for an offensive,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai said in a televised address in which he urged remaining civilians in his region to flee shelling that he said had intensified in recent days.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24th, has forced more than 4 million people to flee abroad, killed or injured thousands, left one-quarter of Ukraine’s population homeless, and turned cities into rubble.

The civilian casualties have triggered a wave of international condemnation, in particular over the deaths in the town of Bucha, which was until last week occupied by Russian forces.

Russia has denied targeting civilians in what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its southern neighbour. Ukraine and western nations have dismissed claims in relation to such an operation as a baseless pretext for war.

Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 10 humanitarian corridors had been agreed for the evacuation of people across the country, including for people to leave the southern besieged port of Mariupol by private transport.

Firm response

Mr Zelenskiy called for a “firm global response” to Friday’s missile attack on a train station crowded with women, children and the elderly in the Donetsk region city of Kramatorsk, a hub for civilians fleeing the east.

The attack left shreds of blood-stained clothes, toys and damaged luggage strewn across the station’s platform.

City mayor Oleksander Honcharenko, who estimated 4,000 people were gathered at the station at the time, said on Saturday that the death toll had risen to least 52.

Russia’s defence ministry denied responsibility, saying in a statement the missiles that struck the station were used only by Ukraine’s military and that Russia’s armed forces had no targets assigned in Kramatorsk on Friday.

In Washington, a senior defence official said the United States did not accept the Russian denial and believed Russian forces had fired a short-range ballistic missile in the attack.

Reuters was unable to verify the details of the attack.

Mr Honcharenko said he expected just 50,000-60,000 of Kramatorsk’s population of 220,000 population to remain within a week or two as people flee the violence.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Saturday Russian forces appeared to have committed war crimes by targeting civilians in Ukraine, but she said lawyers must investigate the alleged incidents.

Leaving Ukraine after a visit, Ms von der Leyen said she had seen with her own eyes on Friday the destruction in the town of Bucha near Kyiv. A forensics team began exhuming a mass grave on Friday containing the bodies of civilians who local officials say were killed while Russians occupied the town.

“My instinct says: if this is not a war crime, what is a war crime, but I am a medical doctor by training and lawyers have to investigate carefully,” Ms von der Leyen told reporters on board a train leaving Ukraine.

The Kremlin has repeatedly rejected accusations it has committed war crimes and has called allegations that its forces executed civilians in Bucha a “monstrous forgery”.

German chancellor Olaf Scholz said the perpetrators of civilian killings in Bucha were guilty of war crimes and must be held accountable.

New sanctions

The EU on Friday overcame some divisions to adopt new sanctions against Russia, including bans on the import of coal, wood, chemicals and other products, alongside the freezing of EU assets belonging to Mr Putin’s daughters and more oligarchs.

Mr Zelenskiy responded in a video address on Friday evening with a call for the West to do more, including imposing an energy embargo and cutting off all Russian banks from the global financial system.

The Ukrainian military says Moscow is preparing for a thrust to try to gain full control of the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that have been partly held by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

Air attacks are likely to increase in the south and east as Russia also seeks to establish a land bridge between Crimea – which Moscow annexed in 2014 – and the Donbas, but Ukrainian forces are thwarting the advance, the British defence ministry said in an intelligence update.

Russia’s military said on Saturday it had destroyed an ammunition depot at the Myrhorod Air Base in central-eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin said on Friday its operation could end in the “foreseeable future” with its aims being achieved by the Russian military and peace negotiators.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg warned the war could last months or even years.

However, the visits by foreign leaders on Saturday were a sign that Kyiv was returning to some degree of normality after the Russian retreat. Some residents have begun to return to the capital, with cafes and restaurants reopening, and Italy said it plans to reopen its embassy in the city later this month. – Reuters