KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s allies vowed Thursday to supply the besieged nation with advanced air defense systems as Russian forces attacked the Kyiv region with kamikaze drones and fired missiles elsewhere at civilian targets, payback for the bombing of a strategic bridge linking Russia with annexed Crimea.
Missile strikes killed at least five people and destroyed an apartment building in the southern city of Mykolaiv, while heavy artillery damaged more than 30 houses, a hospital, a kindergarten and other buildings in the town of Nikopol, across the river from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
Russia has intensified its bombardment of civilian areas in recent weeks as its military lost ground in multiple occupied regions of Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin has illegally annexed. Kremlin war hawks have urged Putin to escalate the bombing campaign even more to punish Ukraine for Saturday’s truck bomb attack on the landmark Kerch Bridge. Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
“We need to protect our sky from the terror of Russia,” Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskky told the Council of Europe, a human rights organization. “If this is done, it will be a fundamental step to end the entire war in the near future.”
Responding to Zelenskyy’s repeated pleas for more effective air defenses, the British government announced it would provide missiles for advanced NASAM anti-aircraft systems that the Pentagon plans to send to Ukraine. The U.K. also is sending hundreds of aerial drones for information-gathering and logistics support, plus 18 howitzer artillery guns.
“These weapons will help Ukraine defend its skies from attacks and strengthen their overall missile defense alongside the U.S. NASAMS,” U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said.
Other NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels this week promised to supply systems offering medium- to long-range defense against missile attacks.
Germany has delivered the first of four promised IRIS-T air defense systems, while France promised more artillery, anti-aircraft systems and missiles. The Netherlands said it would send missiles, and Canada is planning about $50 million more in military aid, including winter equipment, drone cameras and satellite communications.
Speaking in Berlin, German German Olaf Scholz said Putin “and his enablers have made one thing very clear: this war is not only about Ukraine,” but rather “a crusade against our way of life and a crusade against what Putin calls the collective West. He means all of us.”
NATO plans to hold a nuclear exercise next week against the backdrop of Putin’s insistence he would use any means necessary to defend Russian territory, including the illegally annexed regions of Ukraine. The exercise takes place each year.
On the battlefield Thursday in Ukraine, Russian forces hit a five-story apartment building in Mykolaiv with an S-300 missile, regional Gov. Vitaliy Kim said, referring to a weapon ordinarily used for targeting military aircraft.
An 11-year-old boy was pulled alive from the building’s rubble after six hours but later died in a hospital. Rescuers also found three bodies and a fourth person was killed elsewhere in the city.
Residents of Ukraine’s capital region, whose lives had regained some normalcy when war’s front lines moved east and south months ago, were jolted by air raid sirens multiple times Thursday after explosives-packed Iran-made drones found their targets.
Ukrainian officials said Iranians in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine were training Russians how to use the Shahed-136 systems, which can conduct air-to-surface attacks, electronic warfare and targeting.
The low-flying drones keep Ukraine’s cities on edge, but the British Defense Ministry said they’re unlikely to strike deep into Ukrainian territory because many are destroyed before hitting their targets. Ukraine’s air force command said Thursday its air defense units shot down six drones over the Odesa and Mykolaiv regions during the night. Ukrainian authorities also reported knocking down four Russian cruise missiles.
Describing the scope of Russia’s retaliatory attacks, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament said Russian forces struck more than 70 energy facilities in Ukraine this week.
State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin threatened an “even tougher” response to future Ukrainian attacks. The 12-mile Kerch Bridge is a prominent symbol of Moscow’s power.
Kyiv’s troops have recaptured villages and towns in a fall offensive but that has been revealing the trauma of residents who lived for months under Russian occupation.
In one liberated town, Velyka Oleksandrivka in the annexed Kherson region, seven months of Russian occupation left bridges blasted into pieces, blackened vehicles on pockmarked roads and shelling scars on buildings.
“It’s a disaster,” resident Tetyana Patsuk said of her house. “I’ve been crying for a month. I am still shocked. I can’t recover from that feeling that I have lost everything now that I am 72 years old, and that’s it.”
As Ukraine’s military claimed more success Thursday in forcing its enemy to retreat from Kherson-area positions, Moscow authorities promised free accommodation to Kherson residents who choose to evacuate to Russia. The Russia-backed leader of Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, cited possible missile attacks on civilians in suggesting the move.
Saldo’s deputy, Kirill Stremousov tried to play down the move, saying, “No one’s retreating … no one is planning to leave the territory of the Kherson region.” But the British military suggested the move reflected Russian fears that fighting was coming right into the city of Kherson.
Russia has repeatedly characterized the movement of Ukrainians to Russia as voluntary but reports have surfaced that many have been forcibly deported from occupied territory to Russian “filtration camps,” under harsh conditions. In most cases, the only way out of the camps is to Russia or Russian-controlled areas.
Among those forced out have been children. An Associated Press investigation found that officials have deported Ukrainian children without consent, lied to them that their parents didn’t want them, used them for propaganda, changed their citizenship to Russian and gave some to Russian families.
In Russia’s Belgorod region, Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said Ukrainian shelling damaged a multistory residential building.
The director general of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog said Thursday that fighting around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest, remained “concerning.” A Russian missile strike on a distant electrical substation Wednesday caused the plant temporarily to lose its last external power source, which is needed to prevent reactors from overheating.
International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Grossi said in Kyiv after returning from Russia that his organization is pushing for a demilitarization zone around the plant, but that said he did not receive any indications that Putin was ready to discuss the definitive “parameters” of such an agreement.
Yesica Fisch in Velyka Oleksandrivka, Ukraine, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine