kyiv (AP) — Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged missile and artillery barrages that killed at least six people Thursday as both sides refused to give ground despite recent military setbacks in Moscow and the death toll after almost seven months of war.
Russian missile strikes in the southern city of Zaporizhia left one person dead and five others wounded, Ukrainian officials said. Officials in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk said Ukrainian shelling killed at least five people.
The exchange of fire came hours after the two sides made a major prisoner swap and a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin called up reservists to supplement his forces.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, a Ukrainian presidential official, said a hotel in the central part of Zaporizhia was attacked and rescuers were trying to free people trapped in the rubble.
Zaporizhia Governor Oleksandr Starukh said Russian forces attacked infrastructure facilities and also damaged nearby apartment buildings. The region is one of four where Moscow-installed officials plan to hold referendums starting Friday to become part of Russia, but the city itself is in Ukrainian hands.
Meanwhile, the mayor of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, Alexei Kulemzin, said at least five people were killed when Ukrainian shelling on Thursday hit a covered market and a passenger minibus.
Just hours before Thursday’s attacks, there was a major exchange of 250 Ukrainian and foreign fighters, 200 of them for a single person, a Putin ally. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not confirm whether only pro-Russian Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk was part of the exchange.
Among the freed fighters were Ukrainian defenders of a steel mill in Mariupol during a long Russian siege and 10 foreigners, including five British and two former US military, who fought with Ukrainian forces.
A video on the BBC news website on Thursday showed two of the freed Britons, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, talking inside a plane. He said that they had arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“We just want everyone to know that we’re out of the danger zone now and we’re on our way home to our families,” Aslin said on the recording.
“We almost didn’t go out,” Pinner added.
The speed with which the Russian missile attack occurred after the exchange suggested that the Kremlin was seeking to dispel any notions of weakness in order to achieve its battlefield goals.
Those defeats culminated on Wednesday with Putin ordering the partial mobilization of reservists to bolster his contingent in Ukraine. The move sparked unusual protests in Russia and was reviled in the West as an act of weakness and desperation.
The call-up lacked many details, sparking fears and prompting some Russians to scramble to buy plane tickets out of the country.
Meanwhile, authorities in Russian-controlled regions of eastern and southern Ukraine are preparing to hold referendums on the incorporation of those territories into Russia, which would allow Moscow to escalate the war. Voting begins on Friday in Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhia and Donetsk provinces. Russian forces do not fully control the latter two areas.
Foreign leaders have already branded the votes as illegitimate and non-binding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said they were a “fraud” and “noise” to distract the population.