By Janis Laizans and Elizabeth Piper
KYIV (Reuters)—Ukraine said dozens of people died and many more were wounded in a rocket strike at a railway station packed with civilians fleeing fighting and a threat of a major Russian offensive in the country's east.
As regional authorities rushed civilians out of harm's way, European Union leaders arrived in Kyiv to offer Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy support and reassurance that there will be a path to EU membership for Ukraine.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region where the Kramatorsk station is located, said at least 39 people were killed and 87 wounded, with many in serious condition, in what he described as a deliberate attack by Russian forces.
"They wanted to sow panic and fear, they wanted to take as many civilians as possible," he said, adding that thousands of civilians had been at the station when the rockets struck.
Kyrylenko also said the rocket that struck the station contained cluster munitions, which explode in mid-air, spraying small lethal bomblets over a wider area. Their use is banned under a 2008 convention.
Reuters was unable to verify what happened in Kramatorsk.
Kyrylenko published a photograph online showing several bodies on the ground beside piles of suitcases and other luggage. Reuters could not immediately verify the photo.
The Russian defence ministry was quoted by RIA news agency as saying the missiles said to have struck the station were used only by Ukraine's military and that Russia‘s armed forces had no targets assigned in Kramatorsk on Friday.
Zelenskiy said no Ukrainian troops were at the station. "Russian forces (fired) on an ordinary train station, on ordinary people, there were no soldiers there," he told Finland's parliament in a video address.
The White House decried the "horrific and devastating images" of the deadly train station attack.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, in Kyiv with the head of the EU executive Ursula von der Leyen, also condemned the strike. "This is yet another attempt to close escape routes for those fleeing this unjustified war and cause," he said on Twitter.
Moscow has denied targeting civilians since invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it calls a "special military operation" to demilitarise and "denazify" its neighbour. Ukraine and Western supporters call that a pretext for an unprovoked invasion.
The Kremlin, though, sounded defiant on Friday, saying its "special operation" could end in the "foreseeable future" with its aims being achieved with work was being carried out by both the Russian military and Russian peace negotiators.
Russia‘s invasion has forced more than 4 million people to flee abroad, displaced a quarter of the population, killed or injured thousands, laid cities to waste and left Moscow suffering the worst isolation ever inflicted on a world power.
RUSSIAN FORCES REPORTED PIVOTING TOWARD EAST
Ukrainian officials say Russia is regrouping forces after withdrawing from the capital Kyiv's outskirts for a new thrust to try to gain full control of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk partly held by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
Russian forces have failed to take any major cities so far, confronted by unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance and dogged by what Western intelligence officials say have been logistical, supply and morale problems.
Ukraine's military general staff said on Friday that Russian forces were focused on capturing the besieged southeastern port of Mariupol, fighting near the eastern city of Izyum and breakthroughs by Ukrainian forces near Donetsk.
While efforts continued to evacuate civilians from the east and south of Ukraine at risk of a Russian onslaught, residents of areas north of Kyiv recaptured from Russian forces were still coming to terms with the horror of a month-long occupation.
In Yahidne, a village north of the capital, residents recounted how more than 300 people were trapped for weeks by Russian occupiers in a school basement, with names of those who did not survive the harsh conditions or were killed by soldiers scrawled on the wall.
Reuters was not able to verify independently the villagers' accounts. Reporters saw one freshly dug grave in a field by the village and two bodies wrapped in white plastic sheets.
After civilian deaths in the town of Bucha were widely condemned by the West as war crimes, Zelenskiy said the situation in Borodyanka—another town northwest of Kyiv—was "significantly more dreadful."
He offered no further detail or evidence that Russia was responsible for civilian deaths in the town.
Russia says images of bodies in Bucha were staged to justify more sanctions and derail peace negotiations.
Ukraine's prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said that in the Kyiv region, which includes Borodyanka and Bucha, authorities had found 650 bodies, with 40 of them children.
(Additional reporting by James Mackenzie in Yahidne, Ukraine, and Reuters bureaus; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by Mark Heinrich)