Russian missile attack hits Ukrainian hospital

KYIV, Ukraine — Explosions far behind the front lines rocked Ukraine on Friday, as a Russian missile demolished part of a hospital complex and apparent Ukrainian strikes hit Russian-occupied cities, in their escalating long-range air war.

The attack on a medical center in the central city of Dnipro killed at least two people, left three more missing and injured at least 30, Ukrainian officials said. It destroyed a three-story building and damaged several others.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a video on social media of a gutted building, its roof and upper walls missing, belched smoke into the sky and called it “another crime against humanity.”

Ukraine is expected to launch a major counter-offensive soon – some analysts say it could already be in its earliest stages – and both sides have stepped up their attacks from a distance ahead of the clash on the ground. Kiev’s forces have increased the pace and scope of attacks deep into Russian-held territory, mainly on military depots, convoys and troop concentrations, and railways used by Russian forces.

On Friday, explosions were reported over the Russian-occupied town of Berdyansk, about 60 miles from the front, for the second time this week. Vladimir Rogov, a Russian occupation official in southern Ukraine, said several heavy explosions had echoed over Berdyansk overnight and that Russian air defenses had thwarted a Ukrainian attack, a claim that could not be confirmed.

The Ukrainian military did not comment on Berdyansk specifically but said its air force had “delivered five strikes against enemy manpower and equipment clusters.” GeoConfirmed, one of several volunteer groups closely following battlefield movements in Ukraine, posted pictures on Twitter shows a large fire and said shocks had been recorded in Berdyansk, although it was unclear what was hit.

On Friday evening, two large explosions occurred in another occupied southern city, Mariupol, about 40 miles from Berdyansk, near the Azovstal steelworks, according to Mariupol city government officials who fled before the Russians took over. Russian occupation officials said the blasts were caused by Ukrainian missilesrecently delivered by Britain, according to the state news agency Tass.

The hospital strike on Dnipro on Friday morning followed one of Russia’s increasingly frequent overnight bombings targeting towns and infrastructure far from the battlefield, with missiles and drones fired in unison in an attempt to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses. Ukraine’s military said it had destroyed 10 of the 17 missiles fired and 23 of 31 attack drones.

“Only an evil state can fight clinics,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter. “There can be no military purpose to this. It is pure terror.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry told state media it had struck Ukrainian ammunition depots.

The city of Dnipro is a hub for Ukrainian soldiers wounded in combat, usually a first stop before being transported to hospitals in other parts of the country. It was not clear if any Ukrainian soldiers were being treated at the facility that was hit on Friday.

“It was a really difficult night,” said Serhii Lysak, head of the Dnipro regional government. One of those killed, he said, was a 69-year-old man who was “just walking by” when the hospital was hit.

Since the start of President Vladimir V. Putin’s full-scale invasion 15 months ago, Russia has used its advantage in weapons to bomb civilian targets throughout Ukraine, such as hospitals, schools and power plants, which is considered a war crime. At first, the long-range strikes were entirely one-sided and largely unimpeded.

But as Ukraine’s military has gained experience and acquired a growing supply of Western weapons, it has become more adept at intercepting such Russian attacks and more capable of responding in kind.

Last summer, the US began supplying Ukraine with HIMARS rocket artillery system with a range of about 50 miles, which made a decisive difference in battle. In December, Ukraine showed that it could adapt Soviet-era surveillance drones to long-range weapons to strike Russia. And Britain this month began providing Ukraine with high-precision, air-launched missiles Storm Shadow cruise missiles with a range of about 150 miles — far enough to reach every corner of Russian-occupied Ukraine.

After a strike at Berdyansk on Sundaylocal Russian officials claimed that Kiev had used the newly acquired Storm Shadow.

Russian forces have turned Berdyansk, a port on Lake Azov, into a military stronghold, using it as a base for soldiers and a transit point for suppliesaccording to military analysts.

Closer to the front lines in the Donetsk region Russian forces broke a dam on the Vovcha River on Thursday, causing flooding downstream that threatened six villages, home to nearly 1,000 people, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian regional administrator, said on Friday. The strike may have been an attempt to prevent Ukrainian troop movements behind the lines, a tactic both sides have used in this war.

The Ukrainian government has repeatedly warned of the risk that Russia will do so blow up the much larger Kakhovka Dam on the Dnipro River, flooding a much wider area and submerging the reservoir that cools the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, creating an emergency there.

Late on Friday, Ukrainian military intelligence warned that the Russians planned to create an emergency at the power plant, which they occupy, “within the next few hours” to provide a pretext for a ceasefire that would prevent the counteroffensive. The Ukrainian government has issued warnings in the past about threats to the facility, but has rarely been so specific.

“A strike will be carried out” at the facility, followed by the announcement of a radioactive leak, the intelligence department said on Telegram, adding that the Russians would blame Ukraine. Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear company, repeated the accusation.

The Ukrainians offered no evidence for the claim, making it unclear whether it could be a case of disinformation aimed at keeping the Russians off balance. Hours later, a Russian occupation official claimed that it was the Ukrainians who planned to create an emergency at the facility.

The United States is closely monitoring the situation but has not seen any information to support the idea that an incident is planned, said a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues. The US has direct access to data from radiation sensors in the area, the official said.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency has inspectors based at the Zaporizhzhia plant, and a rotation of some arriving and others leaving was due to take place on Friday. The Ukrainians said the Russians were disrupting it. The Russian state energy company that now oversees the facility told Tass that the Ukrainians had blocked it.

The UN agency declined to comment.

On the diplomatic front, Pope Francis, who has offered the Vatican as a mediator, refused to support the position of Ukraine and many of its Western backers that Russia must return all Ukrainian territory it has seized. Kiev has called it a prerequisite for peace talks and insists that otherwise a truce would simply bolster Russian gains.

In an interview on Thursday, in Spanish, with The Telemundo Network, Francis was asked twice if Russia would cede the territory. The first time he didn’t answer the question directly.

“It’s a political issue,” he said the second time. “Peace will be achieved when they can talk to each other.”

Andrew E. Kramer and Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Pokrovsk, Ukraine and Julian E. Barnes from Washington.