Kyiv (Ukraine): Seven Russian rockets slammed into residential buildings in Zaporizhzhia before dawn Thursday, killing two people and trapping at least five in the city close to Europe's biggest nuclear power plant, the governor of the mostly Russian-occupied region said.
The strikes came just hours after Ukraine's president announced that the country's military had retaken three more villages in one of the regions illegally annexed by Russia.
Governor Oleksandr Starukh wrote on his Telegram channel that many people were rescued from the multi-story buildings, including a 3-year-old girl who was taken to a hospital for treatment.
Zaporizhzhia is one of four regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed in violation of international laws on Wednesday, and is home to a nuclear plant that is under Russian occupation. The city of the same name remains under Ukrainian control.
The head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog is expected to visit Kyiv this week to discuss the situation at the Zaporizhzhia facility after Putin signed a decree Wednesday declaring that Russia was taking over the six-reactor plant. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry called it a criminal act and said it considered Putin's decree "null and void." The state nuclear operator, Energoatom, said it would continue to operate the plant.
Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, plans to talk with Ukrainian officials about the Russian move. He will also discuss efforts to set up a secure protection zone around the facility, which has been damaged in the fighting and seen staff including its director abducted by Russian troops.
Grossi will travel to Moscow for talks with Russian officials after a stop in Kyiv.
Meanwhile, leaders from more than 40 countries are meeting in Prague on Thursday to launch a "European Political Community" aimed at boosting security and prosperity across the continent, a day after the Kremlin held the door open for further land grabs in Ukraine.
Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that "certain territories will be reclaimed, and we will keep consulting residents who would be eager to embrace Russia."
Peskov did not specify which additional Ukrainian territories Moscow is eyeing, and he wouldn't say if the Kremlin planned to organize more of the "referendums" in Ukraine that the Ukrainian government and the West have dismissed as illegitimate.
The precise borders of the areas Moscow is claiming remain unclear, but Putin has vowed to defend Russia's territory - including the annexed regions - with any means at his military's disposal, including nuclear weapons.
In his nightly video address Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the Ukrainian army recaptured three more villages in the Kherson region. Novovoskrysenske, Novohryhorivka, and Petropavlivka are all situated northeast of Kherson.
Ukrainian forces are seizing back villages in Kherson in humiliating battlefield defeats for Russian forces that have badly dented the image of a powerful Russian military and added to the tensions surrounding an ill-planned mobilization. They have also fueled fighting among Kremlin insiders and left Putin increasingly cornered.
On Wednesday, the Ukrainian military said the Ukrainian flag had been raised above seven Kherson region villages previously occupied by the Russians. The closest of the liberated villages to the city of Kherson is Davydiv Brid, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) away.
The deputy head of the Ukrainian regional government, Yurii Sobolevskyi, said military hospitals were full of wounded Russian soldiers and that Russian military medics lacked supplies. Once they are stabilized, Russian soldiers are being sent to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
When Russian troops pulled back from the Donetsk city of Lyman over the weekend, they retreated so rapidly that they left behind the bodies of their comrades. Some were still lying by the side of the road leading into the city on Wednesday.
Lyman sustained heavy damage both during the occupation and as Ukrainian soldiers fought to retake it. Mykola, a 71-year-old man who gave only his first name, was among about 100 residents who lined up for aid on Wednesday.
"We want the war to come to an end, the pharmacy and shops and hospitals to start working as they used to," he said. "Now we don't have anything yet. Everything is destroyed and pillaged, a complete disaster." In his nightly address, a defiant Zelenskyy switched to speaking Russian to tell the Moscow leadership that it has already lost the war that it launched Feb. 24.
"You have lost because even now, on the 224th day of full-scale war, you have to explain to your society why this is all necessary." He said Ukrainians know what they are fighting for.
"And more and more citizens of Russia are realizing that they must die simply because one person does not want to end the war," Zelenskyy said.