For a moment, they were crammed onto the platforms of Kramatorsk station, hundreds of women, children and the elderly, listening to the pleas of Ukrainian officials imploring them to flee in the face of a feared Russian attack.
The next moment, death was raining from the air.
At least 50 people were killed and many more injured in a missile assault on Friday morning that left bodies and luggage strewn on the ground and turned Kramatorsk railway station into the site of another atrocity in the Sixties War weeks.
“There are only children!” a woman cried in a video from the sequel.
The missile hit as officials in Kramatorsk and other towns in eastern Ukraine warned civilians to leave before Russian forces mount what is expected to be a major push into the area, where their troops regrouped after withdrawing from areas around Kyiv, the capital. .
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia struck the station with what he identified as a Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile as “thousands of peaceful Ukrainians waited to be evacuated”.
“Lacking the strength and courage to stand up to us on the battlefield, they are cynically destroying the civilian population,” Zelensky said. “It is an evil that has no limits. And if it is not punished, it will never stop.
Russian officials, denying responsibility, said a Ukrainian battalion fired the missile in what they called a “provocation”. The Russian Defense Ministry said Tochka-U missiles are used only by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Russian troops did not carry out any strikes against Kramatorsk on Friday.
A senior Pentagon official said the United States believed Russian forces fired the missile. “They first claimed a successful strike and then only withdrew it when there were reports of civilian casualties,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a confidential assessment of the information.
The station was hit as a senior European Union delegation visited Mr Zelensky’s government, and images of yet another massacre sparked further Western outrage.
Whether one or more missiles hit the station was not immediately clear, and there was no way to independently verify the origin of the attack. Several parked cars were also hit, catching fire and turning into charred carcasses. The waiting room was littered with bodies and personal effects.
After the strike, Ukrainian police inspected the remains of a large rocket next to the train station with the words “for our children” written on it in Russian. It was unclear who wrote the message and where the rocket came from.
Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Honcharenko said 4,000 people were at the station when it was attacked, the vast majority of them women, children and the elderly. At least two children were among the dead, he said.
The head of the region’s military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said 50 people had been killed, 12 of them in hospital. 98 others were injured, including 16 children, he said.
After the attack, Kramatorsk officials said they were trying to find cars and buses to evacuate civilians to western areas believed to be less vulnerable to Russian attacks.
Ukraine’s rail service said evacuations would continue from nearby Sloviansk, where shelters and hospitals were stocked with food and medicine in anticipation of an impending Russian offensive.
Western countries, which shipped weapons to Ukraine and tightened sanctions on Russia to punish President Vladimir V. Putin for the invasion, saw the Kramatorsk massacre as new justification to step up their efforts.
“The attack on a Ukrainian train station is another gruesome atrocity committed by Russia, hitting civilians trying to evacuate and get to safety,” President Biden said. on Twitter. He promised to send more weapons to Ukraine and to work with allies to investigate the attack “as we document Russia’s actions and hold them accountable”.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the strike “abominable.”
“Ukrainian civilians are fleeing to escape the worst,” he wrote on Twitter. “Their weapons? Strollers, soft toys, luggage.
The station was hit as Slovak President Eduard Heger and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to kyiv to show support for Mr Zelensky and his country’s bid for membership to the European Union.
Mr Heger announcement that Slovakia had given Ukraine an S-300 air defense system to help defend against Russian missiles and airstrikes.
To make the transfer possible, the Pentagon said it would reposition a Patriot missile system, operated by the US military, to Slovakia. It was the latest buildup of arms and troops along NATO’s eastern flank as the alliance seeks to deter any Russian incursion.
“Now is not the time for complacency,” Biden said in a statement announcing Patriot’s repositioning. “As the Russian military repositions itself for the next phase of this war, I have directed my administration to continue to spare no effort to identify and provide the Ukrainian military with the advanced weaponry capabilities it needs. to defend his country.
The attack on the train station came after Russian forces spent weeks bombing schools, hospitals and apartment buildings in an apparent attempt to subjugate Ukraine by indiscriminately targeting civilian infrastructure, ignoring defenses of the Geneva Convention which can make these actions war crimes.
Last month, around 300 people were killed in an attack on a theater where hundreds had taken refuge in the devastated port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said. In recent days, there has been mounting evidence of atrocities in the devastated suburbs of kyiv, where Ukrainian troops have found bodies tied up and shot in the head after Russian forces withdrew.
Mrs von der Leyen visited one such suburb, Bucha, on Friday before meeting Mr. Zelensky.
“It was important to start my visit to Bucha,” she wrote on Twitter. “Because in Bucha, our humanity was shattered.”
Russia said its troops had been falsely accused and the evidence against them was false.
The repercussions of the fighting extend far beyond Europe. The UN announced on Friday World food prices rose sharply last month to their highest levels on record as the invasion sent shockwaves through global grain and vegetable oil markets. Russia and Ukraine are major global suppliers of wheat and other grains.
The report of the price hike came as the british government said Russia was headed for its “deepest recession since the collapse of the Soviet Union”, estimating the economy could shrink by up to 15% this year.
On Friday, the European Union formally approved its fifth round of sanctions against Moscow, which included a ban on Russian coal and restrictions on Russian banks, oligarchs and Kremlin officials. The coal ban, which will cost Russia about $8.7 billion in annual revenue, takes effect immediately for new contracts. At Germany‘s insistence, however, the existing contracts were given four months to end, softening the blow to Russia and Germany.
Nonetheless, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meeting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in London on Friday, applauded what Mr Johnson called Germany’s “seismic decision” to turn away from Russian fuel. Britain has pushed for a total ban on Russian energy, a move that Germany, which heats half of its homes with Russian gas, has resisted.
Mr Johnson acknowledged the obstacles to transforming Germany’s energy system “overnight”, but said “we know that Russia’s war in Ukraine will not end overnight”. Mr Scholz said Mr Putin had tried to divide the European powers, but “he will continue to experience our unity”.
On Friday, Russia retaliated against some of the West’s punishments, declaring 45 Polish embassy and consulate staff “persona non grata” and ordering them to leave Russia. Poland had expelled the same number of Russian diplomats.
Russia’s Justice Ministry also said it had revoked the registration of several prominent human rights groups in the country, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which accused Russian troops of committing war crimes in Ukraine. The ministry accused the groups of violating an unspecified Russian law. The decision means the organizations are no longer allowed to operate in Russia.
Human Rights Watch said forcing its office to close would not change its resolve to speak out against Russia’s turn toward authoritarianism. The group said it has been monitoring abuses in Russia since the Soviet era.
“We then found ways to document human rights violations, and we will do so in the future,” he said.
Megan Specia reported from Krakow, Poland, and Michael Levenson from New York. The report was provided by Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, Michael D. Shear and Eric Schmitt of Washington, and Marc Landler and Chris Stanford from London.