Residential areas in Zaporizhzhia hit as Russia targets cities

Seven rockets were fired into residential buildings in Zaporizhzhia before dawn on Thursday, killing at least three people, as Russia increased its attacks on Ukrainian-held cities amid losses by its troops on the battlefield.

The strike flattened an apartment building, and videos published by the Zaporizhzhia regional administration showed rescue workers at the scene, with some people still believed to be under the rubble. The city’s mayor, Anatoliy Kuratyev, said 21 people had been saved, including a three-year-old boy.

Further explosions in the city were reported mid-morning local time. Kuratyev said Russia had hit an “infrastructure object”, without specifying the nature of the target.

Thursday’s attacks came a day after Russia said it considered the whole of Zaprorizhzhia region, including Zaporizhzhia city, part of Russia though it does not occupy it. A law signed by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, on Wednesday clarified that Russia was laying claim to all four regions it had illegally annexed in their entirety – despite the fact Russia does not wholly control any of them and is in retreat.

Upon announcing its intent to annex the areas, Russia’s leadership threatened to use nuclear weapons to respond to attacks on what it now considers its territory. Ukraine described it as “nuclear blackmail” and said it would not be deterred from continuing with its offensives.

Zaporizhzhia, close to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, has suffered several fatal attacks in the past week. On Friday, 30 people died and 88 were injured when a rocket hit the city. The victims were waiting in a queue on the outskirts of the city to enter the occupied territories and others were waiting at a bus stop.

Five other Ukrainian cities were hit on Thursday, in addition to civilian areas in the Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk regions close to the fighting.

Russia launched two rockets at the central Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi, but both reportedly missed their targets.

Related: Russia-Ukraine war latest: what we know on day 225 of the invasion

Elsewhere, Russia used what the Ukrainian authorities say were Iranian-supplied “kamikaze” drones to target the cities of Mykolaiv, Kharkiv and Odesa. Ukraine’s military said they managed to shoot down 18 additional drones before they reached Odesa and Mykolaiv.

The Iranian drones are able to remain airborne for several hours and circle over potential targets, before being flown into enemy troops, armour or buildings and exploding on impact.

Despite Ukraine’s authorities insisting civilians evacuate frontline areas, there are still people living along the contact line; a mixture of elderly people as well as those who say they cannot afford to restart elsewhere. The deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said 14 of the 20 civilians killed in the last 24 hours were living in Ukrainian-controlled areas of Donetsk region.

Ukraine has continued to advance in the east and south, and Russian troops have been retreating under pressure on both fronts. In his nightly address on Wednesday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Ukraine had retaken a further three villages as it pushed forward in the southern region of Kherson.

Putin appeared to admit severe losses on Wednesday in a televised call with teachers, saying the Kremlin was “working on the assumption that the situation in the new territories will stabilise”.

Military analysts say Russia is at its weakest point, having lost masses of equipment and men, and is unlikely to be able to regain any ground unless its mobilisation proves a success. Russia announced the partial mobilisation of 300,000 men in September after the collapse of their control of half of Ukraine’s north-east Kharkiv region.

Russia’s retreats have prompted unusual criticism of its strategy from some of its top propagandists. Though they blame the Russian military leadership, instead of Putin, it is nevertheless reflective of how these losses have hurt Russia’s strongman narrative.

“What have you been doing in this time?” asked Vladimir Solovyov on his talk show on Thursday. “Please explain to me what the general staff’s genius idea is now.”

Part of the justification put forward by Solovyov was that Russia was fighting Nato-controlled mercenaries in Ukraine. “The Ukrainian army ceased to exist a long time ago,” he said.

The British Ministry of Defence on Thursday said Russia was facing a dilemma in Kherson, the only region where forces have managed to acquire a regional centre since February: Kherson city.

“Russia faces a dilemma: withdrawal of combat forces across the [Dneiper River] makes defence of the rest of Kherson oblast more tenable; but the political imperative will be to remain and defend,” read the ministry’s statement.

Russian-installed officials in Kherson region have announced that children living in the occupied area will be sent to Crimea, the southern peninsula illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, for two weeks for an autumn camp because of the security situation.

The announcement said that “educational events, exciting trips and meetings with interesting people” awaited the children. While this may be an attempt by the Russian authorities to shield the children from the rapidly moving frontlines, it follows a pattern of Russia seeking to immerse Ukrainian children living in the occupied areas in their propaganda narratives.

Russia has also taken Ukrainian orphans in the occupied areas to Russia, which Ukraine’s authorities have described as kidnapping.