Deadly Russian attacks on civilian convoy as Putin declares annexation

Scene from the aftermath of suspected Russian missile strikes that killed at least 25 Ukrainians as they waited to provide aid and collect relatives from an area that Russian President Vladimir Putin was about to annex in violation of international law, in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, September 30.  , 2022.
Scene from the aftermath of suspected Russian missile strikes that killed at least 25 Ukrainians as they waited to provide aid and collect relatives from an area that Russian President Vladimir Putin was about to annex in violation of international law, in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, September 30. , 2022. (Photos by Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post/For The Washington Post)

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of this disputed region and promised to protect the people who live here, suspected Russian missiles ripped through a convoy of civilians — leaving the last victims of his war in body bags out in the cold. layers of ground.

They had waited hours under the trees of an old car market to begin the journey from Avtorynok, near the last checkpoint under Ukrainian control in southeastern Zaporizhzhya province, to towns taken by Russian forces in the early weeks of the war.

The Washington Post reporters had spoken to men who joined the convoy the day before: some were doctors, crossing the battle lines to perform life-saving operations in hospitals that Russian troops have not adequately replenished; others were ordinary citizens, trying to rescue loved ones who were too old or weak to make the journey alone.

In Zaporizhzhya, Russia controlled a referendum, but not hearts or minds

Around 7 a.m. Friday, three suspected Russian missiles destroyed those plans. Explosions rocked the asphalt. The ground was littered with corpses and shrapnel.

Ukrainian officials said at least 26 people have been killed and another 85 injured.

The attacks were part of a wave of Russian rockets, missiles and drone strikes launched in the southeast as Putin prepared his annexation announcement, Ukrainian officials said. The contrast between the “great liberation mission” that Putin claimed to be carrying out in occupied Ukraine and the brutal reality of the war he has inflicted on the people here could not have been greater.

“I’m going to treat people with heart conditions there as best I can, or I’ll put them in the car and bring them here myself,” a 69-year-old surgeon, Vitaly, had said the day before. , shrugging the risks with a smile. “I’ll be fine.”

His mustard-colored Lada lay among the wreckage on Friday.

Vitaly was one of the few shell shock survivors. His face was a picture of sadness. Some of the dead were lying next to their cars, or near bushes where they had looked for safety.

When one of Vitaly’s companions got a call, the companion answered and simply said, “I’m here and I’m still alive,” and the call ended.

Friday’s strikes sent shockwaves through a city already transformed by Putin’s war. Hospitals sprang into action as the victims poured into their emergency rooms. Volunteers who worked for months to transform the parking lot of a large supermarket into a welcome place for civilians fleeing the occupied territories rushed to move to another location, fearing strikes at other humanitarian positions would follow.

Putin signs annexation of Ukrainian regions in violation of international law

At the last checkpoint in Russian-occupied territory, fear and confusion rippled through a line of Ukrainian vehicles, packed with civilians trying to flee. Russian soldiers walked between the cars and told the drivers that the Ukrainian army was responsible for the strikes, passengers later said.

“I didn’t believe it,” said Pavlo, a 23-year-old from the city of Tokmak. Like others interviewed, he spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, fearing repercussions for relatives in Russian territory.

“We had to drive further. The other option was to stay at home and be enlisted by the Russians to fight against my fellow Ukrainians,” he said.

As Putin declares a partial mobilization of the Russians domestically, Ukrainians in newly annexed countries fear they may now be forced to fight their compatriots.

Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed since Putin ordered the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. The International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into what appears to be large-scale war crimes.

In a move that mirrored the scene of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russian soldiers and local puppet authorities staged referendums across the territory they control in the provinces of Zaporizhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk, with victories exceeding 90% in each. .

Some votes were collected at gunpoint, escaped residents say.

At the new welcome point in Zaporizhzhya, no one watched Putin’s annexation speech. They already knew what he would say, and most families were focused on finding a place to stay.

When asked about Putin’s latest statement – that they were now Russian citizens “based on historical unity” – several residents rolled their eyes. Recent arrivals said they hoped that the Ukrainian military, which has reversed Russian victories in the east in recent weeks, would one day retake the land that Putin has claimed as his property.

One of the volunteers, a 17-year-old named Yaroslav, said he planned to enlist once he reached the legal age of 18. He said local separatist soldiers allied with Russia now lived at his home in the Zaporizhzhya town of Enerhodar. He had spoken to them before he fled, he said, and they told him they never believed the invasion of Russia would take them this far.

“We’ve seen people suffer, we’ve seen people die because of this war,” Yaroslav said. “For what?”

When night fell in Avtorynok, the belongings of the dead were still on the floor. A small photo was nestled in the long grass. It showed a young couple beaming and they looked very much in love.

“I miss you so much,” it reads on the back. “Come back to me.”

Serhii Korolchuk in Zaporizhzhya contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed decrees to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following organized referendums widely labeled as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The answer: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions against Russia in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said on Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascent” into NATO, in a clear response to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin announced a military mobilization on September 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic effort to reverse the setbacks in his war against Ukraine. The announcement sparked an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly conscripted men, and renewed protests and other forms of resistance to the war.

The fight: Ukraine launched a successful counter-offensive that forced a major Russian retreat into the northeastern region of Kharkov in early September as troops fled the towns and villages they had occupied since the war’s early days, leaving behind large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Photographers for the Washington Post have been on the scene since the beginning of the war – here is some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways people in the US can support the Ukrainian people and what people around the world have donated.

Read our full coverage of the War between Russia and Ukraine. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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