VINNYTSIA, Ukraine (AP) — Rescuers with sniffer dogs combed through debris Friday looking for people missing after a Russian missile strike a day earlier killed at least 23 people and wounded over 100 others in a central Ukrainian city.
Russian forces, meanwhile, pounded other sites in a relentless push to wrest territory from Ukraine and soften the morale of its leaders, civilians and troops as the war nears the five-month mark.
Cruise missile strikes against the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia were the latest attacks to take civilian lives and fan international outrage since Russian President Vladimir Putin began the invasion on Feb. 24. The dead included three children: a 4-year-old girl, and two boys, 7 and 8.
“She was reaching for her daughter, and Liza was already dead,” the mother’s aunt, Tetiana Dmytrysyna, told The Associated Press on Friday. “The mother was robbed of the most precious thing she had.”
A video of Liza playing earlier in the day and a photo of her lifeless body have gone viral worldwide.
As the fighting raged, Russia noted progress in talks on a possible deal to allow Ukraine to use the Black Sea to export millions of tons of grain that could help feed a world facing shortages and higher food prices.
Alluding to talks in Istanbul this week among Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Nations, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said a final document had been prepared and that other participants had “largely supported” Russian proposals to help ease grain shipments through Ukrainian ports.
He said work on the “Black Sea initiative” was to be completed shortly to allow shipments of food “while excluding the use of those logistical chains for the deliveries of weapons and military equipment” to Ukraine. He also said the plan seeks to “prevent any provocations.”
About 22 million tons of grain have been stuck in Ukraine because of the war.
It was the most extensive Russian comment yet on the grain talks, which mostly involved military officials. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Russia and Ukraine had taken “a critical step” to ensuring exports of the desperately needed grain to ease a global food crisis.
Russia’s military campaign has been focusing on Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, but Russian forces regularly also fire at other parts of the country.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said Friday that Russian forces had conducted more than 17,000 strikes on civilian targets during the war, killing thousands of fighters and civilians and driving millions from their homes. The invasion has also rippled through the world economy by hiking prices and crimping exports of key Ukrainian and Russian products such as grain, fuel and fertilizer.
More than 73 people — including four children — remained hospitalized and 18 people were missing after Thursday’s strike on Vinnytsia, a city southwest of the capital Kyiv, said Oleksandr Kutovyi of the local emergency service. Search teams were poring over two sites Friday — an office building with a medical center and a concert hall near an outdoor recreation area where mothers with children often stroll.
Vinnytsia Gov. Serhiy Borzov said only 10 people among the dead had been identified.
“Russia deliberately hit civilians and all those responsible for the crime must be brought to account,” he said, denouncing the “barbaric behavior by Russia that tramples on international humanitarian law.”
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said three missiles were used.
“There is no answer to the question why yesterday, and why in Vinnytsia,” Tymoshenko said. “We expect every second and minute that this could happen in any corner of Ukraine.”
After initial silence about the missile strikes on Vinnytsia, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday that its forces had struck an officers’ club — the Soviet-era use of the concert hall.
Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said the Kalibr cruise missiles landed as the “military facility hosted a meeting between Ukrainian air force command and representatives of foreign weapons suppliers.” He said attendees were discussing prospective supplies of warplanes and weapons.
“Participants of the meeting were eliminated in the strike,” Konashenkov said.
His claim couldn’t be independently verified. Ukrainian authorities have insisted the site had nothing to do with the military.
Overall, Ukraine’s presidential office said Friday that 26 civilians were killed and 190 wounded by Russian shelling over the past 24 hours. That included three other victims in the Donetsk region, which along with neighboring Luhansk — a region nearly totally controlled by Russian forces — makes up the broader Donbas region.
“The situation in the Donetsk region is exacerbating every day, and civilians must leave because the Russian army is using scorched-earth tactics,” Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said. It appeared that the cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk were next in line for attacks by Russian forces.
Elsewhere, authorities in Mykolayiv said at least 10 explosions occurred in the southern city overnight, accusing Russia of hitting universities. Vitaliy Kim, the head of Mykolaiv’s military administration, posted a video of smoke rising over the strikes.
The Russian news agency Tass, citing Russian-backed separatists, reported Friday that two civilians were killed and six injured after Ukrainian forces allegedly shelled a bus terminal in the city of Donetsk a day earlier.
Also Friday, Daria Morozova, the human rights ombudsperson for the Moscow-backed separatist leadership in Donetsk, claimed a British “mercenary” died in captivity last Sunday. She said the man, whom she identified as Paul Urey, had died of chronic illnesses and stress.
“From our side, he was given the necessary medical assistance despite the grave crimes he committed,” she said.
The Presidium Network, an aid charity that works in Ukraine, said the British government had confirmed British aid worker Urey’s death to the family.
Punitive political actions over the war continued, with Russian state news media reporting Friday that the Kremlin had barred 384 members of Japan’s parliament from entering Russia, citing retaliation for Japan’s sanctions against Russian parliament members.