KYIV, Ukraine -- Russian missiles hit apartment buildings in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia on Thursday, killing at least seven people, with at least five others missing, in a region that Moscow has illegally annexed, a local official said.
Two strikes damaged more than 40 buildings hours after Ukraine's president announced that his military had retaken three more villages in another of the four regions annexed by Russia, Moscow's latest battlefield reversal.
The Zaporizhzhia regional governor, Oleksandr Starukh, who provided the casualty figure, said more than 20 people were rescued from the multistory apartment buildings. Rescuers who earlier took a 3-year-old girl to a hospital continued to search the rubble early Friday. Starukh wrote on Telegram that Russian forces used S-300 missiles in the attacks.
Russia has been reported to have converted the S-300 from its original use as a long-range antiaircraft weapon into a missile for ground attacks because of a shortage of other, more suitable weapons.
“Absolute meanness. Absolute evil," Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskky said of the attacks, in a video speech to the inaugural summit of the European Political Community in Prague. "There have already been thousands of manifestations of such evil. Unfortunately, there may be thousands more.”
Zaporizhzhia is one of the four regions of Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed as Russian territory in violation of international laws. The region is home to a sprawling nuclear power plant under Russian occupation; the city of the same name remains under Ukrainian control.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, announced Thursday after meeting with Zelenskyy in Kyiv that the U.N.’s atomic energy watchdog will increase the number of inspectors at the Zaporizhzhia plant from two to four.
Grossi talked with Ukrainian officials — and later will confer in Moscow with Russian officials — efforts to set up a protection zone around the nuclear power station. Grossi said mines appear to have been planted around the perimeter of the plant, which has been damaged during the war and caused worries of a possible radiation disaster. Zelenskyy said Russia has stationed as many as 500 fighters at the plant.
Putin signed a decree Wednesday declaring that Russia was taking over the six-reactor facility, a move Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called a criminal act that was “null and void.”
Ukraine's state nuclear operator, Energoatom, said it would continue to operate the plant, whose last operating reactor was shut down Sept. 11 because of frequent outages of external power needed to run critical safety systems. Transmission lines to the plant have been repeatedly shelled, and Grossi on Thursday reported shelling in an industrial area close to the plant's access road.
Outside the battlefront, Russian authorities detained several hundred Ukrainians trying to flee Russian-occupied areas Wednesday near the Russian-Estonian border, according to Ukrainian Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets. Citing the Estonian Ministry of Internal Affairs, he wrote on Facebook that Russian forces took the Ukrainians on trucks to an unknown destination.
Most of the detained Ukrainians had fled through Russia and Crimea and were seeking to enter the European Union — Estonia is a member state — or find a way to return home, Lubinets wrote.
Russian has forced thousands of Ukrainians into “filtration camps” to determine their loyalties. Zelenskyy said Thursday more than 1.6 million Ukrainians have been deported to Russia.
The precise borders of the areas in Ukraine that Moscow is claiming remain unclear. 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.
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. Ukrainian officials said Thursday they have retaken 400 square kilometers (154 square miles) of territory, including 29 settlements, in the Kherson region since Oct. 1.
Ukraine also was pressing a counteroffensive in the Donetsk region, which Moscow-backed separatists have partially controlled since 2014 but which remains contested despite Putin's proclaimed annexation.
In battered Chasiv Yar, a city in the Donetsk region 7 miles (12 kilometers) from heavy fighting, the human impact became clear as retirees waited to collect their pension checks at a post office.
“We are hoping for victory of the Ukrainian army,” Vera Ivanovna, 81, a retired English and German teacher, said as artillery booms echoed. “We lived in independent Ukraine as you are living in America. We also want to live how you are living.”
At least two Russian strikes have hit Chasiv Yar in recent days, with one person reportedly buried under the rubble of a dormitory. More than 40 people were killed in July when Russian rockets struck a residential building.
Russia said it had seized the Donetsk region village of Zaitsevo. The governor of the neighboring Luhansk region said Ukrainian forces had recaptured the village of Hrekivka. Neither battlefield report could be independently confirmed.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, 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, met with government officials and residents and 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 that U.S. President Joe Biden signed last week promises another $12.3 billion for Ukraine’s military and public services needs.
“This war will be won on the battlefield, but it is also being won in Ukraine’s ongoing efforts to strengthen its democracy and its economy,” Power told reporters at Kyiv’s train station.
She said Ukraine’s success as a democratic country with a modern economy tackling corruption incensed Putin.
The European Union on Thursday froze the assets of an additional 37 people and entities tied to Russia’s war in Ukraine, bringing the total of EU blacklist targets to 1,351. The newly sanctioned included officials involved in last week’s illegal Russian annexations and sham referendums. The latest sanctions also widen trade bans against Russia and prepare for a price cap on Russian oil.
At the United Nations in New York, Russia called for a secret ballot next week on a Western-backed resolution that would condemn Russia's annexation of the four Ukrainian regions and demand that Moscow reverse its actions. Russia apparently hopes to get more support from the 193 nations in the General Assembly if their votes aren't made public.
Russia vetoed a legally binding Security Council resolution on Sept. 30 to condemn annexation referendums in the four Ukrainian regions as illegal. The General Assembly's resolutions aren't legally binding.
Associated Press writers Hanna Arhirova in Ukraine and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine