VINNYTSIA, Ukraine (AP) — Rescue teams with sniffer dogs combed through the debris Friday in a central Ukrainian city looking for people still missing after a Russian missile strike a day earlier killed at least 23 people and wounded over 100 others.
Russian forces, meanwhile, pounded other sites in a relentless push to wrest territory from Ukraine and try to soften the unbending morale of its leaders, civilians and troops as the war nears the five-month mark.
Thursday’s cruise missile strikes on the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia launched by a Russian submarine were the latest incidents to take civilian lives and fan international outrage since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24.
Even as the fighting raged, Russia noted signs of progress in talks on a possible deal to allow Ukraine to export millions of tons of grain via the Black Sea that could help feed a world facing 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 Russian proposals to help ease grain shipments through Ukrainian ports have been “largely supported” by other participants.
He said work on a document called “Black Sea initiative” was set to be completed “in the nearest time.” The Russian proposal would 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.
That was 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 help ease a global food crisis — but said more technical work toward finalizing a deal was needed.
Russia’s military campaign now has been focusing on Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, but Russian forces regularly fire upon targets in many other parts of the country too.
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 like grain, fuel and fertilizer.
More than 73 people — including four children — remained hospitalized and 18 people were missing after Thursday’s strike, said Oleksandr Kutovyi, spokesman for the emergency service in the Vinnytsia region. Search teams were poring over two sites on 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 so far.
“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 after the strikes on Vinnytsia, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday that its forces had struck an officers’ club — which the concert hall was known for back in Soviet times.
Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said the Kalibr cruise missiles landed as “that 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 as well as work to repair Ukrainian aircraft.
“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 morning that 26 civilians were killed and another 190 were wounded by Russian shelling over the past 24 hours. That included three other victims in the Donetsk region, which along with neighboring Luhansk — 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 Russian forces, but it wasn’t at all clear how soon such a push could begin.
Elsewhere, authorities in Mykolayiv said there were at least 10 explosions 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.
Separately, the Russian news agency Tass, citing Russian-backed separatists, reported Friday that two civilians were killed and six others were 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, said a British “mercenary” died in captivity on 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.
Britain’s Foreign Office said it was “urgently seeking clarification from the Russian government on media reports that a British aid worker has died in Ukraine.”
But the Presidium Network, an aid charity that works in Ukraine and has been assisting Urey’s family, said the British government had confirmed Urey’s death to the family.