KYIV, Ukraine (Reuters) - Russia's first missile blitz on Ukrainian cities in weeks was met in Kyiv with defiance and disgust over the targeting of civilians, while Ukrainian forces defending the eastern town of Bakhmut continued to thwart Russian attempts to break through.
The Ukrainian military said on Friday that its soldiers had repelled 102 attacks in past 24 hours in Bakhmut, a town which has been a key objective for Russian forces since August.
The pre-dawn missile barrage on Thursday killed at least nine civilians and cut electricity supplies in several cities, but there was relief that the risk of a catastrophic meltdown at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant was averted as power was restored after a temporary disconnection from the Ukrainian grid.
Moscow confirmed it had used Kinzhal - Russian for dagger - missiles in Thursday's attack.
The mass strikes on targets far from the front were the first such wave since mid-February, breaking a lull in the air campaign against Ukraine's civil infrastructure that Russia launched five months ago.
"The occupiers can only terrorise civilians. That's all they can do," said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. "But it won't help them. They won't avoid responsibility for everything they have done."
Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians. Its defence ministry said it had carried out a "massive retaliatory strike" as payback for a cross-border raid last week, and claimed to have destroyed drone bases, disrupted railways and damaged facilities that make and repair arms.
Moscow says such hits are intended to reduce Ukraine's ability to fight. Kyiv says the air strikes have no military purpose and aim to harm and intimidate civilians, a war crime.
The missiles killed villagers in the western Lviv region, and closer to the frontline in the central Dnipro region, while Russian artillery also killed at least three people in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukrainian officials said.
In Kyiv, a woman stood outside her shattered apartment, holding a toddler while venting her anger with Russia in the aftermath of the attack.
"How can they do this? How is this possible? They are not humans," said Liudmyla, 58, after a night in which the air sirens sounded for seven hours.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said the failure of Russian intelligence to identify military targets had led to a "Plan B - demoralising the population".
'CLASH OF EMPIRES'
Expressing a readiness to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin to call for peace, Pope Francis said in an interview published on Friday that the war in Ukraine was fuelled by "imperial interests, not just of the Russian empire, but of empires from elsewhere".
The White House said the missile barrage was "devastating" to see and Washington would continue to provide Ukraine with air defence capabilities.
The missile attacks briefly knocked out power to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe's largest, severing it from the grid and forcing it onto emergency diesel power to prevent a meltdown. It was later reconnected to Ukraine's energy grid, operator Ukrenergo said.
The plant, which Russia has held since capturing it early in the war, is near the front line and both sides have warned in the past of a potential for disaster. Moscow said it was safe.
UN nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi appealed for a protection zone around the plant.
"Each time we are rolling a dice. And if we allow this to continue time after time then one day our luck will run out," Grossi told the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors.
UKRAINE FIGHTS ON AT BAKHMUT
On the battlefield, the week has seen an apparent shift as Ukraine has decided to fight on in Bakhmut, a town that has borne the brunt of a Russian winter offensive in the bloodiest fighting of the war.
Moscow says Bakhmut is important as a step to securing the surrounding Donbas region, a major war aim. The West says the ruined city has little value and Russian forces are sacrificing lives to give Putin his only victory since sending hundreds of thousands of reservists into battle at the end of last year.
Ukrainian military analyst Zhdanov said defenders had foiled Russian attempts to completely surround Bakhmut from the west. The frontline to the south had held for several days, but the Russians had made some headway in villages to the north.
Moscow, which claims to have annexed a fifth of Ukraine, says it launched its "special military operation" a year ago to combat a security threat. Kyiv and the West call it an unprovoked war to subdue an independent state.