Lethal rocket strike in Sloviansk as Russia moves on Donbas

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Blood smears the stairwell floor and the shards of glass strewn about while shrapnel pockmarks the walls.

Outside, a crater between two apartment blocks marks the spot where the rocket hit in the very early hours of Tuesday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. Authorities said three people were killed and six were wounded.

Sloviansk, in the eastern Donetsk region, is again in Russia’s sights as part of its efforts to seize the Donbas, made up of Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region.

Russian military officials have said their main goal is to “liberate” the Donbas, the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014.

“I was on my sofa and suddenly my sofa just jumped in the air,” said Mikhaylo Samoluk, one of the local residents. The strike came around 1:30 in the morning, he said, when those still living in the building were asleep.

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Olena Voytenko, who lives on the first floor of one of the apartment blocks, said most of the residents had already moved away, but around 30 people still lived there.

“I will never forget what I saw today,” she said, recounting seeing the wounded and the dead.

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She knew one of the people killed, she said. A man in his early 40s named Aleksander who lived upstairs from her. She saw his lifeless body being carried out on a stretcher, badly burnt.

“Why do they bomb the residential buildings? Isn’t there military honor for Russians that they can fight in the field?” questioned Voytenko, who is of Russian origin herself. “Why do you annihilate the country that you try to conquer? I do not see any sense in it.”

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s General Staff said an attempt to storm a village lying between currently Russian-held Izyum and Sloviansk was repelled, and that Russian forces were “creating conditions for (a) further offensive” in the area.

Many have fled Sloviansk, as others have from many cities and towns in eastern Ukraine. Some people stayed.

Among them are Lydmyla Telehyna and her husband Mykola. Both in their 70s, they stayed behind after their daughter and her four young children left Ukraine because of the war.

They went to check on their daughter’s apartment on the top floor of the building, and were horrified by what they saw.

The windows had shattered, shards of glass lying throughout the front room where the children would have slept, and the walls were marked with shrapnel.

“What have they done?” Telehyna cried, her grief mingled with the relief of her daughter and grandchildren already having fled the country.

“Everything is destroyed, there is no balcony, no windows no doors,” she said. Her daughter had considered coming back, but there is no longer a home to come back to.

“I hurt, I’m crying, I worry,” she said. “But what can I do? Nothing.”

Authorities have repeatedly urged residents to leave the areas of eastern Ukraine near the fighting.

“All the territory of Donetsk region now is a field of war,” Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Donetsk administration, said in a statement on the Sloviansk rocket attack posted on his Facebook page. “Every such blow is a cruel reminder that there are no safe places in the Donetsk region now. Evacuate! Evacuation saves lives!”

But some are unable, or unwilling, to move despite the dangers.

“There is no place to go,” said Samoluk. Besides, he said, he didn’t want to leave. “I didn’t leave in 2014, and I won’t go now.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth on Tuesday reiterated America’s support for Taiwan on her second visit in a year to the self-governing island claimed by China.

Duckworth, meeting with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, emphasized the close economic, political and security relations between Taipei and Washington.

China sent 30 military aircraft toward the island on Monday in an ongoing campaign of regular flights. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said it responded by scrambling jets, putting air defense missile systems on alert and issuing radio warnings.

Duckworth said she wanted to “emphasize our support for Taiwan security.” The former Army helicopter pilot and lieutenant colonel in the National Guard cited strong bipartisan backing for a bill she has put forward promoting cooperation between Taiwan’s armed forces and the National Guard.

“I do want to say that it is more than just about military. It’s also about the economy,” the Illinois Democrat told Tsai.

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Tsai thanked the U.S. government and Congress “for the importance they place on peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” as well as Duckworth herself for “keeping a close watch on Taiwan related security issues.”

China said it strongly deplores Duckworth’s visit.

“Taiwan is a province of China, and there is no so-called president,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said. He urged the U.S. to end all official contacts with Taiwan.

“The U.S. government has recently sent a series of erroneous signals on the Taiwan issue,” he said. “What the U.S. government should do is to put into practice President Biden’s remarks that the U.S. does not seek a new Cold War with China, does not aim to change China’s system … and does not support Taiwan independence.”

U.S. President Joe Biden said on a recent trip to Japan and South Korea that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China were to invade Taiwan.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put China’s threats against Taiwan under new focus, prompting increased backing for arms sales and political support from Democrats and Republicans.

China upped the ante further in May, reaching out to the Solomon Islands and nine other island nations with a sweeping security proposal that, even if only partially realized, could give it a presence in the Pacific much nearer Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and on the doorstep of the strategic American territory of Guam.

That is seen as a potential route to blocking access to Taiwan by the U.S. and its allies in the event China makes good on its threat to invade the island.

In a speech Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said President Joe Biden’s administration aims to lead the international bloc opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into a broader coalition to counter what it sees as a more serious, long-term threat to global order from China. He did say that the U.S. does not support Taiwan independence.