Ukraine: Rockets strike mayor's office in occupied Donetsk


KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Pro-Kremlin officials on Sunday blamed Ukraine for a rocket attack that struck the mayor’s office in Donetsk, a city controlled by the separatists, while Ukrainian officials said Russian rocket strikes hit a town across from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, among other targets.

The attacks came as Russia’s war in Ukraine nears the eight-month mark. Kyiv also reported holding the line in continued fierce fighting around Bakhmut, where Russian forces have claimed some gains amid a seven-week Ukrainian counteroffensive that has led Russian troops to retreat in some other areas.

On the front line, “the key hotspots in Donbas are (neighboring towns) Soledar and Bakhmut, where extremely heavy fighting continues,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address Sunday.

Those towns and Donetsk are in the industrialized Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Kyiv since 2014. The Donetsk region is among four that were illegally annexed by Russia last month.

Zelenskyy accused Russia of including convicts “with long sentences for serious crimes” in its front-line troops in return for pay and amnesty — something Western intelligence officials have also asserted.

The municipal mayor’s building in Donetsk was seriously damaged by the rocket attack. Plumes of smoke swirled around the building, which had rows of blown-out windows and a partially collapsed ceiling. Cars nearby were burned out. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Kyiv didn’t claim responsibility or comment on the attack.

Kremlin-backed separatist authorities have accused Ukraine of numerous strikes on infrastructure and residential targets in the occupied regions using U.S.-supplied long-range HIMARS rockets.

Last week, the Kremlin launched what is believed to be its largest coordinated air and missile raids yet on Ukraine’s infrastructure. The wide-ranging attacks included the use of self-destructing explosive drones from Iran, and killed dozens of people.

Zelenskyy's office said Moscow was shelling towns and villages along the front line in the east Sunday, and that “active hostilities” continued in the southern Kherson region.

The rockets at Nikopol, across from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, damaged power lines, gas pipelines, and a raft of civilian businesses and residential buildings, Ukrainian officials said. Russia and Ukraine have for months accused each other of firing at and around the nuclear plant, which is Europe's largest. It's run by its pre-occupation Ukrainian staff under Russian oversight.

The region of Zaporizhzhia also was illegally annexed by Russia last month, despite the fact that some 20% of it remains under Ukrainian military control.

Meanwhile, in western Russia along the border with Ukraine, officials said air defenses shot down “a minimum” of 16 Ukrainian missiles in the Belgorod region, Ria Novosti reported. Russian authorities in border regions have accused Kyiv of frequently firing at their territory, and say civilians have been wounded. Ukraine hasn't claimed responsibility or commented on the alleged attacks.

Russia has used Belgorod as a staging ground for shelling and missile attacks on Ukrainian territory.

Meanwhile, Russia opened an investigation into a shooting in that region Saturday in which two men from a former Soviet republic who were training at a military firing range killed 11 and wounded 15 during target practice, before being slain themselves. The Russian Defense Ministry called the incident a terrorist attack.

Other developments:

— France, seeking to puncture perceptions that it has lagged in supporting Ukraine, confirmed it's pledging air-defense missiles and stepped-up military training to Ukraine. Up to 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers will be embedded with military units in France, rotating through for several weeks of combat training, specialized training in logistics and other needs, and training on equipment supplied by France, the French defense minister, Sébastien Lecornu, said in an interview published in Le Parisien.

— The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, accused Moscow late Saturday of conducting “massive, forced deportations of Ukrainians,” which it said likely amount to ethnic cleansing.

It referenced statements made this week by Russian authorities that claimed that “several thousand” children from a southern region occupied by Moscow had been placed in rest homes and children’s camps amid the Ukrainian counteroffensive. The original remarks by Russia’s deputy prime minister, Marat Khusnullin, were reported by RIA Novosti on Friday.

Russian authorities have previously admitted to placing children from Russian-held areas of Ukraine, who they said were orphans, for adoption with Russian families, in a potential breach of an international treaty on genocide prevention.

— The Ukrainian military accused pro-Kremlin fighters of evicting civilians in occupied territories to house officers in their homes, an act it described as a violation of international humanitarian law. It said the evictions were happening in Rubizhne, in the eastern Luhansk region. It didn’t provide evidence for its claim.

— A Russian commander wanted for his role in the downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014 has been deployed to the front, according to social media posts by pro-Kremlin commentators. Posts by Maksim Fomin and others said Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov, has been given responsibility for an unspecified Russian front-line unit.

Girkin has been on an international wanted list over his alleged involvement in the downing of Kuala Lumpur-bound flight MH17, which killed 298 people. He remains the most high-profile suspect in a related murder trial in a Dutch court, with a verdict expected Nov. 17.

Recently, Girkin's social media posts have lashed out at Moscow’s battlefield failures. Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency said Sunday it would offer a $100,000 reward to anyone who captures him.