ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine, May 8 (Reuters) – As many as 60 people were feared to have been killed in the Russian bombing of a village school in the eastern Ukrainian region of Luhansk, the regional governor said on Sunday.
Governor Serhiy Gaidai said Russian forces dropped a bomb on Saturday afternoon on the school in Bilohorivka where about 90 people were sheltering, causing a fire that engulfed the building for four hours.
“Thirty people were evacuated from the rubble, seven of whom were injured. Sixty people were likely to have died under the rubble of buildings,” Gaidai wrote on the Telegram messaging app, adding that two dead bodies had been found.
Reuters could not immediately verify the report.
Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russian forces of targeting civilians in the war, which Moscow denies.
The Russians were continuing their intensive shelling of the Azovstal steelworks, last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in the ruined southeastern port city of Mariupol, a deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov regiment said on Sunday.
“We will continue to fight as long as we are alive to repel the Russian occupiers,” Captain Sviatoslav Palamar told an online news conference, pleading with the international community to help evacuate wounded soldiers from the plant.
In a week-long operation brokered by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), scores of civilians who had taken refuge in the plant’s underground shelters have been evacuated.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said late on Saturday that more than 300 civilians had been rescued and authorities would now focus on trying to evacuate the wounded and medics. Other Ukrainian sources have cited different figures.
Russian-backed separatists said on Sunday a total of 182 civilians evacuated from the plant had arrived at a temporary accommodation point in Bezimenne, in the area they control. Those who wished to go to areas controlled by Ukraine were handed over to U.N. and ICRC representatives, they said.
In the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia, about 230 km (140 miles) northwest of Mariupol, dozens of people who had fled the port city and nearby occupied areas on their own or with the help of volunteers waited to be registered in a car park set up to welcome evacuees.
“There’s lots of people still in Mariupol, who want to leave but can’t,” said history teacher Viktoria Andreyeva, 46, who said she had only just reached Zaporizhzhia after leaving her bombed home in Mariupol with her family in mid-April.
“The air feels different here, free,” she said in a tent where volunteers offered food, basic supplies and toys to the new arrivals, many of whom were traveling with small children.
In an emotional address on Sunday for Victory Day, when Europe commemorates the formal surrender of Germany to the Allies in World War Two, Zelenskiy said that evil had returned to Ukraine with the Russian invasion, but his country would prevail.
Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the invasion he launched on Feb. 24 a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and rid it of anti-Russian nationalism fomented by the West. Ukraine and its allies say Russia launched an unprovoked war.
Mariupol is key to Moscow’s efforts to link the Crimean Peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014, and parts of the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk that have been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since then.
Putin sent Victory Day messages to separatist leaders in Luhansk and Donetsk, saying Russia was fighting shoulder to shoulder with them and likening their joint efforts to the war against Nazi Germany. “Victory will be ours,” Putin said, according to a Kremlin press release on Sunday.
U.S. President Joe Biden and other G7 leaders were to hold a video call with Zelenskiy on Sunday in a show of unity ahead of Russia’s Victory Day celebrations on Monday.
Underlining Western support for Ukraine, Britain pledged to provide a further 1.3 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) in military support and aid, double its previous spending commitments.
Putin will preside on Monday over a parade in Moscow’s Red Square of troops, tanks, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles, making a speech that could offer clues on the future of the war. Russia’s efforts have been stymied by logistical and equipment problems and high casualties in the face of fierce resistance.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said on Saturday that Putin was convinced “doubling down” on the conflict would improve the outcome for Russia.
“He’s in a frame of mind in which he doesn’t believe he can afford to lose,” Burns told a Financial Times event in Washington on Saturday.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Sunday its forces had destroyed a Ukrainian navy ship near Odesa with a missile strike overnight, and had destroyed four Ukrainian warplanes, four helicopters and an assault boat in the past 24 hours.
Ukraine said its forces had repulsed nine Russian attacks in Donetsk and Luhansk, destroying 19 tanks and 20 combat vehicles.
The Luhansk governor said Ukrainian forces had retreated from the city of Popasna, which has been the focus of intense fighting. “Everything was destroyed there. Our troops retreated to more fortified positions,” he told Ukrainian television.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s republic of Chechnya, said earlier his soldiers had taken control of most of Popasna.
Reuters could not independently verify the claims made by any of the parties to the fighting.