Russia said Wednesday it had targeted a group of French fighters in a long-range strike on the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, an attack authorities said injured more than a dozen civilians.
The Kremlin's claim came hours after Ukraine's foreign minister vowed to gain full control over its skies in 2024, as Russia's full-scale assault enters its third year.
Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city lying close to the Russian border, has been under persistent shelling since Russia launched large-scale hostilities in Ukraine in February 2022.
"On the evening of 16 January, the armed forces of the Russian Federation carried out a precision strike on a temporary deployment point of foreign militants in the city of Kharkiv, the core of which were French mercenaries," the defence ministry said in a statement.
The ministry claimed to have killed dozens of foreign militants in the attack and injured many more but did not provide evidence.
The strikes tore into a multi-storey building in central Kharkiv, gutting the structure and leaving debris strewn around the street below.
Kharkiv region governor Oleg Synegubov said that there were no military targets in the area.
- Defeating Russia 'takes time' -
Officials in Kyiv have seen a steep rise in civilian casualties since December, as Moscow intensifies air attacks, reversing a downward trend seen earlier in 2023, the United Nations has warned.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday said his country's priority for 2024 was to gain control over its skies, where Russian forces have had the upper hand.
"In 2024, of course the priority is to throw Russia from the skies," Kuleba said in an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Kyiv has long pressured the West to deliver advanced fighter jets to support its troops entrenched in the south and east of the country.
Responding to those calls, French President Emmanuel Macron announced this week that France would deliver a new batch of around 40 SCALP long-range cruise missiles as well as hundreds of bombs as Kyiv fights the Russian assault.
But even that pledge is limited compared to the range of munitions that Russian forces have recently been raining down across Ukraine.
"We are fighting a powerful enemy, a very big enemy that doesn't sleep," Kuleba said.
"We defeated them on the land in 2022. We defeated them in the sea in 2023 and we are completely focused on defeating them in the air in 2024," he told a discussion panel at the forum in Switzerland.
- Renewed strikes -
Kuleba's comments at the World Economic Forum in Davos came hours after Russian drone and missile attacks -- including in Kharkiv -- wounded at least 20 people across Ukraine and shelling killed two civilians.
The barrage left massive craters in the southern city of Odesa where AFP journalists saw residential buildings charred in the wake of the assault.
Rescue workers hauled out vulnerable residents on stretchers from housing blocks that had had their windows blown out in the Black Sea city, footage from emergency services showed.
On Wednesday, officials in the southern region of Kherson said one person had been killed and another injured by Russian shelling.
In the northeastern Kharkiv region, Governor Oleg Synegubov said a woman was killed in Russian shelling on a village near the border.
A boy, aged 10, had to have a limb amputated and a 14-year-old girl received shrapnel wounds in the attack, he added.
Russia has also been weathering increased numbers of Ukrainian strikes, particularly in border regions where officials and residents are bolstering defences.
"The situation is, of course, difficult at the moment," a member of a volunteer defence group, Oleg Gerasimov told AFP in the border city of Belgorod.
"But we are hoping, believing, that the threat to our city and the whole country will end in the very near future," he added.
Late last year, more than two dozen people were killed in a series of strikes on the city -- the deadliest attack on Russian soil so far.
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