Russian strike kills 25 civilians and wounded dozens in Zaporizhzhia

The aftermath of the strike on Zaporizhzhia. Credit: ITV News

A Russian strike on an occupied Ukrainian city killed at least 25 people and wounded dozens, an official said on Friday.

The attack on Zaporizhzhia came just hours before Moscow will claim to annex more of Ukraine in an escalation of the seven-month war.

Zaporizhzhia regional governor Oleksandr Starukh made the announcement in an online statement. He said there were at least 28 wounded when Russian forces targeted a humanitarian convoy heading to Russian-occupied territory.

He posted images of burned out vehicles and bodies lying in the road. Russia did not immediately acknowledge the strike.

ITV News Correspondent John Ray shared images online of the aftermath of the strike.

He said a mobile phone could be heard ringing inside one of the ruined vans next to the body of a dead man.

The attack comes as Moscow will claim it will annex four regions into Russia after an internationally criticised, gunpoint referendum vote as part of its invasion of Ukraine.

Those regions include areas near Zaporizhzhia, but not the city itself, which remains in Ukrainian hands.

Mr Starukh said those in the convoy planned to travel into Russian-occupied territory to pick up their relatives and then take them to safety. He said rescuers were at the site of the attack.

The claimed annexation - and planned celebratory concerts and rallies in Moscow and the occupied territories - would come just days after voters supposedly approved Moscow-managed “referendums” that Ukrainian and Western officials have denounced as illegal, forced and rigged.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday that four regions of Ukraine - Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia - would be folded into Russia during a Kremlin ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to give a major speech.

Mr Peskov said the regions’ pro-Moscow administrators would sign treaties to join Russia in the Kremlin’s ornate St. George’s Hall.

Regional Governor Oleksandr Starukh posted images of burned out vehicles and bodies lying in the road. Credit: Regional Governor Oleksandr Starukh/Telegram

In an apparent response, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy called an emergency meeting Friday of his National Security and Defense Council. President Zelenskyy also sought to capitalise on anti-war sentiment in Russia by issuing a special video directed at Russia’s ethnic minorities, especially those in Dagestan, one of the country’s poorer regions in the North Caucasus.

“You do not have to die in Ukraine,” he said, wearing a black hoodie that read in English “I’m Ukrainian,” and standing in front of a plaque in Kyiv memorialising what he called a Dagestani hero. He called on the ethnic minorities to resist mobilisation.

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The US and its allies have promised to adopt even more sanctions than they’ve already levied against Russia and to offer millions of dollars in extra support for Ukraine as the Kremlin duplicates the annexation playbook it followed when it incorporated Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Mr Putin early Friday issued decrees recognising the independence of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, steps he had taken in February regarding Luhansk and Donetsk and earlier for Crimea.

Ukraine has repeated its vows to recapture the four regions, as well as Crimea. For its part, Russia pledges to defend all its territory - including newly claimed annexed regions - by all available means, including nuclear weapons.

Heightening the tensions are Russia’s partial military mobilisation and allegations of sabotage of two Russian pipelines on the Baltic Sea floor that were designed to feed natural gas to Europe.

Adding to the Kremlin’s woes are Ukraine’s success in recapturing some of the very land Russia is annexing and problems with the mobilisation that President Vladimir Putin acknowledged on Thursday.

Russian recruits gather to take a train at a railway station in Prudboi, Volgograd region of Russia. Credit: AP

Ukraine’s Western supporters have described the stage-managed referendums on whether to live under Russian rule as a bald-faced land grab based on lies.

They say some people were forced to vote at gunpoint in an election without independent observers on territory from which thousands of residents have fled or been forcibly deported.

In unusually strong language, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres told reporters on Thursday in New York that Russia’s illegal annexation would violate the UN Charter and has “no legal value.” He described the move as “a dangerous escalation” and said it “must not be accepted”.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres conveyed the message to Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, on Wednesday.

In what would be a major blow to Moscow’s war effort, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Ukrainian forces may soon encircle Lyman, 160 kilometres southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

“The collapse of the Lyman pocket will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping” in the northern Donetsk and western Luhansk regions and “may allow Ukrainian troops to threaten Russian positions along the western Luhansk” region, the institute said, citing Russian reports.