By Iryna Nazarchuk
SERHIIVKA, Ukraine (Reuters) -Russia flattened part of an apartment building while residents slept on Friday in missile attacks near Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odesa that authorities say killed at least 21 people, hours after Russian troops abandoned a nearby outpost at Snake Island.
Neighbours in the resort village of Serhiivka helped workers comb through the rubble of the nine-storey apartment block, a section of which had been completely destroyed at 1:00 a.m.
Walls and windows of a neighbouring, 14-storey apartment block had also been damaged by the blast wave. Nearby holiday camps were also hit.
“We came here to the site, assessed the situation together with emergency workers and locals, and together helped those who survived. And those who unfortunately died. We helped to carry them away,â€ said Oleksandr Abramov, who lives nearby and had rushed to the scene when he heard the blast.
Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesman for the Odesa regional administration, said 21 people had been confirmed killed, including a 12-year-old boy. Authorities said earlier 41 people had been rescued from the apartment building where 152 lived.
The regional governor said the Soviet-era missiles had been fired from the direction of the Black Sea.
The Kremlin denied targeting civilians: “I would like to remind you of the president’s words that the Russian Armed Forces do not work with civilian targets,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The attack came just four days after Russia struck a crowded shopping mall in central Ukraine killing at least 19 people.
Kyiv says Moscow has dramatically escalated its long-range attacks hitting civilian targets far from the front line in recent days, which Ukraine describes as a war crime. Russia says it has been aiming at military sites.
Thousands of civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what Ukraine says is an unprovoked war of aggression. Russia calls the invasion a “special operation” to root out nationalists.
On Thursday, Russia pulled its troops off Snake Island, a desolate but strategically important outcrop that it seized on the war’s first day and had used to control the northwestern Black Sea, where it has blockaded Odesa and other ports.
In his nightly video address, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed what he described as a strategic victory at Snake Island.
“It does not yet guarantee security. It does not yet ensure that the enemy will not come back,” he said. “But this significantly limits the actions of the occupiers. Step by step, we will push them back from our sea, our land and our sky.”
STANDING OVATION FOR EU FLAG
In Kyiv, Ukrainian lawmakers gave a standing ovation as the flag of the European Union was carried through the chamber to stand alongside Ukraine’s own flag behind the dais, a symbol of Ukraine’s formal EU candidate status granted last week.
Zelenskiy and the lawmakers also stood for a minute of silence for those killed in the morning attacks near Odesa.
Russia’s stepped up campaign of long-range missile attacks on Ukrainian cities has come as its forces have ground out success on the battlefield in the east, with a relentless assault to force Kyiv to cede two provinces to separatists.
Moscow has been on the verge of capturing one of those provinces, Luhansk, since taking the city of Sievierodonetsk last week after some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Ukraine’s last bastion in Luhansk is the city of Lysychansk across the Siverskyi Donets river, which is close to being encircled under relentless Russian artillery assault.
The Russians were shelling Lysychansk from different directions and approaching from several sides, regional Governor Serhiy Gaidai said on Ukrainian television.
“The superiority in fire power of the occupiers is still very much in evidence,” Zelenskiy said. “They have simply brought in all their reserves to hit us.”
In Russian-occupied Sievierodonetsk, residents have emerged from basements to sift through the rubble of their city.
“Almost all the city infrastructure is destroyed. We are living without gas, electricity, and water since May,” Sergei Oleinik, 65, told Reuters. “We are glad that this ended, and soon maybe reconstruction will start, and we will be back to more or less normal life.”
But after its losses in the east, the Ukrainian victory at Snake Island gives Kyiv a major success in the Black Sea. The island has been a national symbol since the first day of the war when a Ukrainian guard ordered by Russia to surrender radioed back: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
Russia has used its control of the sea to impose a blockade on Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest grain exporters, threatening to shatter Ukraine’s economy and cause global famine.
Moscow denies it is to blame for a food crisis, which it says is caused by Western sanctions hurting its own exports. President Vladimir Putin met the president of Indonesia on Thursday and spoke by phone on Friday to the prime minister of India, promising both major food importers that Russia would remain a big supplier of grain.
Pushing the Russians off Snake Island could be a step towards reopening Odesa’s port, although military analysts say Russia could still threaten cargo ships at sea.
Ukraine hopes to inflict enough damage in the east to exhaust Russia’s advancing army, and turn the tide in coming months with advanced weapons arriving from the West.
In the latest sign of Russia’s split with Europe, Russia’s ambassador in Bulgaria said she would call for her embassy to be shut, along with Bulgaria’s embassy in Moscow, following Sofia’s refusal to reinstate diplomats it expelled for spying.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie)