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By Sergiy Karazy
VINNYTSIA, Ukraine (Reuters) - Russian missiles struck the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia far behind the frontlines on Thursday in an attack which Ukrainian officials called a war crime and said had killed at least 23 people, including three children.
The strike, which Ukraine said had been carried out with Kalibr cruise missiles launched from a Russian submarine in the Black Sea, came a day after a breakthrough in talks between Moscow and Kyiv to unblock Ukrainian grain exports and underscored how far the two sides remain from a peace settlement.
"What is this, if not an open act of terrorism?" Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was "appalled" by the missile attack and "condemns any attacks against civilians or civilian infrastructure," a spokesperson said.
The Russian defence ministry, which denies deliberately targeting civilians, did not immediately comment on the strike.
Ukraine's state emergency service said on its Facebook page that 23 people including three children had been killed, with 66 hospitalized and 39 others still missing.
It posted a photograph on its Telegram channel of a toy kitten, a toy dog, and flowers lying in the grass. "The little girl Lisa, killed by the Russians today, has become a ray of sunshine," it said, above a second image of a setting sun over ruined roofs. "Forgive us, little one, that we did not save you."
Zelenskiy told an international conference aimed at prosecuting war crimes in Ukraine that the attack had been mounted on "an ordinary, peaceful city".
"Cruise missiles hit two community facilities, houses were destroyed, a medical centre was destroyed, cars and trams were on fire," he said.
Ukraine's interior minister, Denys Monastyrskyi, said later two more missiles had been intercepted en route by air defences.
Russia, which launched what it called its "special military operation" against Ukraine on Feb. 24, says its it uses high-precision weapons to degrade Ukraine's military infrastructure to protect its own security.
Vinnytsia, a city of 370,000 people about 200km (125 miles) southwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, hosts the command headquarters of the Ukrainian Air Force, according to an official Ukrainian military website, a target which Russia used cruise missiles to try to hit in March, the Ukrainian air force said at the time.
Video footage showed thick black smoke billowing out of a tall building, while photographs posted online by the State Emergency Service showed grey smoke rising later from the twisted remains of burnt-out cars and smouldering rubble.
One showed an abandoned, overturned pram lying on the street.
In comments on Twitter, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Russia of committing "another war crime".
"This is terrorism. Deliberate murder of civilians to spread fear. Russia is a terrorist state and must be legally recognised as such," Kuleba wrote.
FIGHTING ON THE EASTERN FRONT
The United States and more 40 other countries agreed on Thursday to coordinate investigations into suspected Russian war crimes in Ukraine.
Russia denies the accusations, and Dmitry Medvedev, a former president who is now deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, has said that attempts by the West to punish a nuclear power such as Russia for the conflict in Ukraine risk endangering humanity.
The Kremlin has said that Russia is ready to halt what the West calls Moscow's unprovoked war of aggression if Kyiv agrees to its conditions.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko said on Thursday that Moscow would respond positively should Kyiv be ready to resume peace negotiations, the Interfax news agency reported. Kyiv would have to affirm its non-aligned and non-nuclear status and formally recognise existing territorial realities, Rudenko was cited as saying.
Specifically, he said that would mean recognising that Crimea, annexed by Moscow in 2014, was under Russian control, and that two self-proclaimed Russian-backed statelets in eastern Ukraine were no longer under Kyiv's remit.
Ukraine has repeatedly said it is unwilling to concede any territory to a country it calls a hostile occupier and has said it plans to take back any land lost by force.
On the war's frontlines hundreds of miles to the east of Vinnytsia, Ukraine said on Thursday it had repelled attempted Russian ground assaults after Moscow focused its fire on and around two towns there which it views as spring-boards to taking control of bigger cities.
Daniil Bezsonov, a Russian-backed official in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said on Thursday that the statelet's armed forces and Russia were focusing their fire in eastern Ukraine on the towns of Siversk and Soledar.
The Russian plan, he said, was to seize the two towns and then move forward to attack the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk from the east.
The Ukrainian military, which reported Russian shelling of Siversk, Soledar and Kramatorsk, said it was holding the line on all fronts and repelling all attempted assaults.
Russian-backed separatist forces late on Thursday claimed control of the settlements of Stryapivka and Nova Kamianka east of Soledar, the LPR militia said on their Telegram channel.
Two people were killed when Ukrainian forces shelled a bus station in the separatist-held city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, a separatist leader said on Thursday.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Andrew Osborn, Alexandra Hudson; editing by Nick Macfie and Andrew Heavens)