One moment, they were packed onto the platforms at the Kramatorsk train station, hundreds of women, children and old people, heeding the pleas of Ukrainian officials imploring them to flee ahead of a feared Russian onslaught.
The next moment, death rained from the air.
At least 50 people were killed and many more wounded in a missile assault on Friday morning that left bodies and luggage scattered on the ground and turned the Kramatorsk station into the site of another atrocity in the six-week-old war.
“There are just children!” one woman cried in a video from the aftermath.
The missile struck as officials in Kramatorsk and other cities in eastern Ukraine had been warning civilians to leave before Russian forces mount what is expected to be a major push into the region, where their troops have been regrouping after withdrawing from areas around Kyiv, the capital.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said that Russia had hit the station with what he identified as a Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile as “thousands of peaceful Ukrainians were waiting to be evacuated.”
Clearing out bodies after the rocket attack in Kramatorsk.Credit…Fadel Senna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“Lacking the strength and courage to stand up to us on the battlefield, they are cynically destroying the civilian population,” Mr. Zelensky said. “This is an evil that has no limits. And if it is not punished, it will never stop.”
Russian officials, denying responsibility, said a Ukrainian battalion had fired the missile in what they called a “provocation.” The Russian Defense Ministry said that Tochka-U missiles are only used by the Ukrainian armed forces and that Russian troops had not made any strikes against Kramatorsk on Friday.
A senior Pentagon official said the United States believed Russian forces had fired the missile. “They originally claimed a successful strike and then only retracted it when there were reports of civilian casualties,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a confidential intelligence assessment.
The train station was hit as a top European Union delegation was visiting Mr. Zelensky’s government, and the images of yet another mass killing provoked new Western outrage.
Whether one or more missiles struck the station was not immediately clear, and there was no way to independently verify the origin of the attack. Several parked cars were also hit, catching fire and turning into charred hulks. The waiting area was strewn with bodies and belongings.
After the strike, the Ukrainian police inspected the remains of a large rocket next to the train station with the words “for our children” written on it in Russian. It was unclear who had written the message and where the rocket had come from.
The mayor of Kramatorsk, Oleksandr Honcharenko, said 4,000 people had been at the station when it was attacked, the vast majority of them women, children and elderly people. At least two children were among the dead, he said.
The head of the military administration in the region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said 50 people had been killed, including 12 who died in the hospital. Another 98 were wounded, including 16 children, he said.
After the attack, Kramatorsk officials said they were trying to find cars and buses to evacuate civilians to western areas presumed to be less vulnerable to Russian attacks.
Ukraine’s railway service said that evacuations would proceed from nearby Sloviansk, where shelters and hospitals have been stocked with food and medicine in anticipation of an imminent Russian offensive.
Western countries, which have been shipping arms to Ukraine and tightening sanctions on Russia to punish President Vladimir V. Putin for the invasion, saw the Kramatorsk slaughter as new justification to intensify their efforts.
“The attack on a Ukrainian train station is yet another horrific atrocity committed by Russia, striking civilians who were trying to evacuate and reach safety,” President Biden said on Twitter. He vowed to send more weapons to Ukraine and to work with allies to investigate the attack “as we document Russia’s actions and hold them accountable.”
President Emmanuel Macron of France called the strike “abominable.”
“Ukrainian civilians are fleeing to escape the worst,” he wrote on Twitter. “Their weapons? Strollers, stuffed animals, luggage.”
The station was hit as the Slovak president, Eduard Heger, and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, were traveling to Kyiv in a show of support for Mr. Zelensky and his country’s bid for European Union membership.
Mr. Heger announced that Slovakia had given Ukraine an S-300 air defense system to help defend against Russian missiles and airstrikes.
To make the transfer possible, the Pentagon said it would reposition one Patriot missile system, operated by U.S. service members, to Slovakia. It was the latest buildup in arms and troops along NATO’s eastern flank, as the alliance seeks to deter any Russian incursion.
“Now is no time for complacency,” Mr. Biden said in a statement announcing the Patriot repositioning. “As the Russian military repositions for the next phase of this war, I have directed my administration to continue to spare no effort to identify and provide to the Ukrainian military the advanced weapons capabilities it needs to defend its country.”
The attack on the railway station came after Russian forces had spent weeks shelling schools, hospitals and apartment buildings in an apparent attempt to pound Ukraine into submission by indiscriminately targeting civilian infrastructure, ignoring Geneva Convention protections that can make such actions war crimes.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Missile attack. A missile strike at a crowded train station in eastern Ukraine killed at least 50 and wounded nearly 100, according to Ukrainian officials, who blamed Russia for hitting a major evacuation point for those trying to flee before an expected stepped-up offensive.
New efforts to isolate Russia. Russia is facing new punishing measures in response to mounting evidence of atrocities in the suburbs of Kyiv. The European Union approved a ban on Russian coal, while the United Nations suspended Russia from the Human Rights Council. The U.S. Senate voted to strip the country of its preferential trade status with the United States.
In the city of Mariupol. More than 5,000 people have died in the southeastern city since the start of the war, according to the city’s mayor. President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russia could try to stage scenes to make it look as though Ukrainian forces had killed civilians.
Peace talks. Hope for progress dimmed after Russia’s foreign minister said the Ukrainian side had proposed a new draft deal that deviated from previous versions. Belarus further complicated the situation by demanding to be included in the negotiations.
Last month, an estimated 300 people were killed in an attack on a theater where hundreds had been sheltering in the battered port of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said. In recent days, growing evidence has pointed to atrocities in the devastated suburbs of Kyiv, where Ukrainian troops found bodies bound and shot in the head after Russian forces had retreated.
Ms. von der Leyen visited one of those suburbs, Bucha, on Friday before meeting with Mr. Zelensky.
“It was important to start my visit in Bucha,” she wrote on Twitter. “Because in Bucha our humanity was shattered.”
Russia has said its troops have been falsely accused and that the evidence against them is fake.
The repercussions of the fighting are spreading far beyond Europe. The United Nations reported on Friday that world food prices rose sharply last month to their highest levels ever, as the invasion sent shock waves through global grain and vegetable oil markets. Russia and Ukraine are important suppliers of the world’s wheat and other grains.
The report of rising prices came as the British government said Russia was heading for its “deepest recession since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” estimating that the economy could shrink by as much as 15 percent this year.
On Friday, the European Union formally approved its fifth round of sanctions against Moscow, which included a ban on Russian coal and restrictions on Russian banks, oligarchs and Kremlin officials. The coal ban, which will cost Russia about $8.7 billion in annual revenue, takes effect immediately for new contracts. At Germany’s insistence, however, existing contracts were given four months to wind down, softening the blow to Russia and Germany alike.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, meeting with the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in London on Friday, applauded what Mr. Johnson called the “seismic decision” by Germany to turn away from Russian fuel. Britain has pushed for a total ban on Russian energy, a move that Germany, which heats half its homes with Russian gas, has resisted.
Mr. Johnson acknowledged the obstacles to transforming Germany’s energy system “overnight,” but said “we know that Russia’s war in Ukraine will not end overnight.” Mr. Scholz said Mr. Putin had tried to divide European powers, but “he will continue to experience our unity.”
On Friday, Russia retaliated for some of the punishments from the West, declaring 45 Polish Embassy and Consulate staff “persona non grata,” and ordering them to leave Russia. Poland had expelled the same number of Russian diplomats.
Russia’s Justice Ministry also said it had revoked the registration of several prominent human rights groups in the country, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which have accused Russian troops of committing war crimes in Ukraine. The ministry accused the groups of violating an unspecified Russian law. The decision means the organizations are no longer allowed to operate in Russia.
Human Rights Watch said that forcing its office to close would not change its determination to call out Russia’s turn to authoritarianism. The group said it had been monitoring abuses in Russia since the Soviet era.
“We found ways of documenting human rights abuses then, and we will do so in the future,” it said.
Megan Specia reported from Krakow, Poland, and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, Michael D. Shear and Eric Schmitt from Washington, and Mark Landler and Chris Stanford from London.