KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia launched missiles that hit apartment buildings in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, a local official said Thursday, killing three people and wounding at least 12 in a region that houses Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant and which Moscow illegally annexed.
The two strikes, the first before dawn and another in the morning, damaged more than 40 buildings, local authorities said. The attacks came just hours after Ukraine’s president announced that the country’s military had retaken three more villages in another of the four regions annexed by Russia, the latest battlefield reversal for Moscow.
The Zaporizhzhia region’s governor, Oleksandr Starukh wrote on Telegram that many people were rescued from the multi-story buildings, including a 3-year-old girl who was taken to a hospital for treatment.
Photos provided by the Emergency Service of Ukraine showed rescuers scrambling through rubble in the wreckage of a building looking for survivors.
Starukh said of Russia: “The terrorist country has shown its beastly face by converting defense weapons into offensive weapons and killing peacefully sleeping people.”
Zaporizhzhia is one of the regions of Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed as Russian territory in violation of international laws 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 atomic energy watchdog is expected to visit Kyiv this week to discuss the situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant after Putin signed a decree Wednesday declaring that Russia was taking over the six-reactor facility.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called the move 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 discuss efforts to set up a secure protection zone around the facility, which has been damaged during Russia’s war in Ukraine and seen staff, including its director, abducted by Russian troops.
Grossi plans to travel to Moscow for talks with Russian officials after his stop in Ukraine.
The U.S. government sent its international development chief to Kyiv on Thursday, the highest-ranking American official to visit Ukraine since Russia illegally annexed the four regions.
The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Samantha Power, was holding meetings with government officials and residents. She said the U.S. would provide an additional $55 million to repair heating pipes and other equipment.
USAID said the United States had delivered $9.89 billion in aid to Ukraine since February. A spending bill signed by U.S. President Joe Biden last week promises another $12.3 billion directed both at military and public services needs. Power said Washington plans to release the first $4.5 billion of that funding in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, leaders from more than 40 European countries met in Prague on Thursday to launch a “political community” aimed at boosting security and prosperity across the continent.
“What you will see here is that Europe stands in solidarity against the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” Iceland’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, told reporters at Prague Castle, 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 Wednesday that “certain territories will be reclaimed, and we will keep consulting residents who would be eager to embrace Russia.”
The precise borders of the areas Moscow is claiming remain unclear, but Putin has vowed to defend Russia’s territory — including the annexed Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine — with any means at his military’s disposal, including nuclear weapons.
The deputy head of the Ukraine president’s office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said 10 people were killed in the latest Russian attacks in the Dnipro, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions. It was not clear if that number included those killed in the morning strikes in Zaporizhzhia.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said 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 was 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.
Ukraine also was seeking to press a counteroffensive in the Donetsk region, which has been partly controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014 yet remains contested despite Putin’s proclaimed annexation.
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.
Hanna Arhirova contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine