KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A delegation of leaders and senior officials from Africa sought in Ukraine on Friday ways to end the country's full-scale war with Russia and ensure food and fertilizer deliveries to their continent, though an air raid in Kyiv during their stay provided a reminder of the challenges they face.
The delegation, which included the presidents of South Africa, Senegal, Zambia and the Comoros Islands, first went to Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where bodies of civilians lay scattered in the streets last year after Russian troops abandoned a campaign to seize the capital and withdrew from the area.
The delegation's stop in Bucha was symbolically significant, as the town has come to stand for the brutality of Moscow's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The Russian occupation of Bucha left hundreds of civilians dead in the streets and in mass graves. Some showed signs of torture.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said last month that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed to separate meetings with members of an African peace mission.
The delegation was set to travel to St. Petersburg later Friday, where Russia's top international economic conference is taking place, and meet with Putin on Saturday. It also includes senior officials from Uganda, Egypt and Congo-Brazzaville.
The members of the delegation represent a cross-section of African views about the war. South Africa, Senegal and Uganda have avoided censuring Moscow for the conflict, while Egypt, Zambia and Comoros voted against Russia last year in a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia's invasion. Many African nations have long had close ties with Moscow, dating back to the Cold War when the Soviet Union supported their anti-colonial struggles.
While in Bucha, the visitors placed commemorative candles at a small memorial outside St. Andrew's Church, near one of the locations where a mass grave was unearthed.
Shortly after, air raid sirens began to wail in Ukraine's capital. Mayor Vitali Klitschko reported an explosion in the Podilskiy district, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods.
"Russian missiles are a message to Africa: Russia wants more war, not peace," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.
The Ukrainian air force said it shot down six Russian Kalibr cruise missiles, six Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles and two reconnaissance drones. It gave no details on where they were shot down.
Germany will deliver another 64 Patriot missiles to Ukraine, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Friday, to help shield it against Russia's relentless aerial attacks.
Officials who helped lay the groundwork for the delegation's talks said the African leaders not only aimed to initiate a peace process but also to assess how Russia, which is under heavy international sanctions, can be paid for fertilizer exports that Africa desperately needs.
They are also set to discuss the related issue of ensuring more grain shipments out of Ukraine amid the war and the possibility of more prisoner swaps.
"Life is universal, and we must protect lives – Ukrainian lives, Russian lives, global lives," Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema told The Associated Press. "Instability anywhere is instability everywhere."
The African peace overture comes as Ukraine launches a counteroffensive to dislodge the Kremlin's forces from occupied areas, using Western-supplied advanced weapons in attacks along the 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) front line. Western analysts and military officials have cautioned that the campaign could last a long time.
China presented its own peace proposal at the end of February but it appeared to have few chances of success. Ukraine and its allies largely dismissed the plan, and the warring sides look no closer to a cease-fire.
Ukrainian troops recorded successes along three stretches of the front line in the south and east, Andriy Kovalev, a spokesman for the General Staff of Ukraine's armed forces said in a statement Friday.
According to Kovalev, Ukrainian forces moved forward south of the town of Orikhiv in Zaporizhzhia province, in the direction of the village of Robotyne, as well as around Levadne and Staromaiorske, on the boundary between Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk province further east.
Kovalev said Ukraine's troops also advanced in some areas around Vuhledar, a mining town in Donetsk that was the site of one of the main tank battles in the war so far.
It wasn't possible to independently verify the claims.
Russian shelling on Thursday and overnight killed two civilians and wounded two others in southern Ukraine's flood-hit Kherson region, where a major dam was destroyed last week, according to the region's governor, Oleksandr Prokudin.
Russian forces over the previous day launched 54 strikes across the province, using mortars, artillery, multiple rocket launchers, drones, missiles and aircraft, Prokudin said.
Floodwaters in the Kherson region have continued to recede, with the average level in flood-hit areas standing at 1.67 meters (about 5 feet). That is down from 5 meters (16 feet) immediately following the breach of the Kakhovka dam last Tuesday, according to the Ukrainian presidential office.