Russian strikes intensify as Ukrainians return for holiday

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Ukrainian soldier Vasyl Khomko, 42, hugs his daughter Yana as she arrives at the train station in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022. Khomko’s wife and daughter have been living in Slovakia due to the war but returned to Kyiv to spend New Year’s Eve together. (AP Photo/Roman Hrytsyna)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Multiple blasts rocked Kyiv and other areas of Ukraine on Saturday, killing at least one person and wounding 14 others, in a sign that the pace of Russia attacks had picked up before New Year’s.

Some Ukrainians defied the danger, however, to return to the country to reunite with families for the holidays.

Ukrainian officials claimed Russia was now deliberately targeting civilians, seeking to create a climate of fear to see out the year grimly and usher in a bloody 2023.

First lady Olena Zelenska expressed outrage that such massive missile attacks could come just before New Year’s Eve celebrations.

“Ruining lives of others is a disgusting habit of our neighbors,” she said.

The blasts also came at an unusually quickened rhythm, one that alarmed officials just 36 hours after Russia launched a barrage of missiles on Thursday to damage energy infrastructure facilities.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba highlighted the harsh civilian toll of this latest offensive — that “this time, Russia’s mass missile attack is deliberately targeting residential areas, not even the energy infrastructure.”

The deadly blast in the Ukrainian capital occurred among the multi-story residential buildings of the Solomianskyi district.

An AP photographer at the scene of the explosions saw the body of a dead woman as her husband and son stood nearby. Among the injured taken to hospital was an older woman. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said two schools were also damaged, including a kindergarten.

Various residential buildings and civilian infrastructure were damaged in Kyiv on Saturday afternoon as part of massive attacks spanning the country. A top official in the president’s office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, published photos and video of a partially collapsed six-story hotel in Kyiv. Klitschko said a Japanese journalist was among those injured in the capital.

Russia launched 20 cruise missiles over Ukraine on Saturday afternoon, of which Ukrainian forces shot down 12, according to Ukrainian military chief Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy published a video address shortly after Russia launched the New Year’s Eve cruise missiles over Ukraine saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “hiding behind the military, behind missiles, behind the walls of his residences and palaces.” Addressing the Russians, he added that “no one in the world will forgive you for this. Ukraine will not forgive.”

At least four civilians were wounded in the Khmelnytskyi province of western Ukraine, according to regional Gov. Serhii Hamalii. Six people were wounded in the southern region of Mykolaiv.

Mykolaiv Gov. Vitalii Kim said that the Russians were targeting civilians more directly than just by attacking infrastructure as in the past.

“In many cities residential areas, hotels, just roads and garages are affected,” he wrote on Telegram.

In Zaporizhzhia region, as a result of a missile attack, two houses were destroyed, and around eight damaged. Four people were also wounded, among them a pregnant woman and a 14-year-old girl, said regional Gov. Oleksandr Starukh.

Even though Russia’s 10-month war rumbles on with no end in sight, for some families the new year is nevertheless a chance to reunite, however briefly, after months apart.

At Kyiv’s central railway station on Saturday morning, Mykyta, still in his uniform, gripped a bouquet of pink roses tightly as he waited on platform 9 for his wife Valeriia to arrive from Poland. He hadn’t seen her in six months.

“It actually was really tough, you know, to wait so long,” he told The Associated Press after hugging and kissing Valeriia.

Nearby, another soldier, Vasyl Khomko, 42, joyously met his daughter Yana and wife Galyna who have been living in Slovakia due to the war, but returned to Kyiv to spend New Year’s Eve together.

Back in February, fathers, husbands and sons had to stay behind as their wives, mothers and daughters boarded trains with small children seeking safety outside the country. Scenes of tearful goodbyes seared television screens and front pages of newspaper across the world.

But on the last day of the year marked by the brutal war, many returned to the capital to spend New Year’s Eve with their loved ones, despite the ongoing Russian attacks.

As Russian attacks continue to target power supplies leaving millions without electricity, no big celebrations are expected and a curfew will be in place as the clock rings in the new year. But for most Ukrainians being together with their families is a luxury.

Valeriia first sought refuge from the conflict in Spain but later moved to Poland. Asked what their New Year’s Eve plans were, she answered simply: “Just to be together.”

The couple declined not to share their family name for security reasons as Mykyta has been fighting on the front lines in both southern and eastern Ukraine.

On platform 8, another young couple reunited. University student Arseniia Kolomiiets, 23, has been living in Italy. Despite longing to see her boyfriend Daniel Liashchenko in Kyiv, Kolomiiets was scared of Russian missiles and drone attacks.

“He was like, ‘Please come! Please come! Please come!’” she recalled. “I decided that (being) scared is one part, but being with beloved ones on the holidays is the most important part. So, I overcome my fear and here I am now.”

Although they have no electricity at home, Liashchenko said they were looking forward to welcoming 2023 together with his family and their cat.

Natalya Kontonenko had traveled from Finland. It was the first time she had seen her brother Serhii Kontonenko since the full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24. Serhii and other relatives traveled from Mykolaiv to Kyiv to meet Natalya.

“We are not concerned about the electricity, because we are together and that I think is the most important,” he said.

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