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The Park Hotel that was destroyed during a Russian missile strike in central Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 11.STRINGER/Reuters

The Park Hotel was a squat, dull, concrete affair. To many foreign journalists looking for a place to sleep near the front line in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region, it seemed like the safest available option.

It wasn’t tall and it wasn’t famous, making it an unlikely target for a Russian military strike. And its sturdy construction lent additional comfort, especially when compared with larger, glass-fronted hotels in the city.

That sense of relative safety was demolished Wednesday night, when a Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile, repurposed to hit land targets, smashed into the four-storey building, just above the entrance. By Thursday morning, the hotel’s lobby – where photographs of guests such as President Volodymyr Zelensky, taken back when he was youthful television comedian, and hockey legend Dominik Hasek, had hung – was a smouldering mess. Another S-300 struck the parking lot, setting cars on fire. Thirteen people were injured, including a Georgian journalist working for Turkish media.

While Russian propaganda channels on Telegram claimed Thursday that the Park “was used by foreign mercenaries and the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” men in uniform were a rare sight during the more than half-dozen times Globe and Mail correspondents stayed there over almost two years of war. The hotel restaurant, which served greasy takes on local and European cuisine, was usually populated with Ukrainian and foreign journalists frantically typing up that day’s news from around the Kharkiv region, where Russian troops are again pressing forward.

Footage from the scene of the attack showed medics tending to bloodied guests and hotel staff as a car alarm sounded nearby. Kharkiv Police Chief Volodymyr Tymoshko said foreign journalists covering the war were seen as the main targets. “Russian propagandists tell their inadequate citizens about mercenaries living in hotels,” Mr. Zelensky’s chief-of-staff, Andriy Yermak, wrote on his own Telegram channel. “Mercenaries for them are civilians, children.”

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A journalist's camera covered in dirt and broken glass lies on the back seat of a damaged car at a site of Park Hotel destroyed during a Russian missile strike.STRINGER/Reuters

Covering the Russian army’s assault on eastern and southern Ukraine – the two main battle fronts – has become progressively more dangerous over the past six months. The destruction of the Park Hotel follows a New Year’s Eve missile attack on the five-star Kharkiv Palace Hotel, and an October attack that damaged the city’s Reikartz Hotel. Journalists were wounded in both strikes.

Sergiy Tomilenko, president of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, said the Russian attacks were “a deliberate tactic, intimidating the media in order to limit coverage of the war in the international media.”

He said the pattern extended beyond Kharkiv. In August, the Druzhba hotel in the city of Pokrovsk – the closest place to stay to the trench lines in the Donetsk region, and another hotel where Globe teams repeatedly stayed – was struck in a “double tap” strike that saw the five-storey building hit twice by Iskander ballistic missiles in a period of 40 minutes. Seven people were killed in the attacks, which also destroyed a nearby pizzeria that was another popular gathering spot for journalists and NGO workers.

Two days after the attack on the Druzhba, Russian missiles struck the Reikartz hotel in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, killing one person and injuring 16 others. In addition to visiting journalists, the hotel frequently hosted United Nations personnel monitoring the situation at the nearby Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is under Russian occupation.

Perhaps the most infamous attack was in July, when the Ria pizzeria in the city of Kramatorsk – the best restaurant still open in the war-ravaged Donetsk region – was struck by another Iskander, killing 11 people, including Victoria Amelina, an award-winning Ukrainian writer. The neighbouring Hotel Kramatorsk had already been destroyed early in the war.

The strike on the pizzeria happened shortly after a group of foreign fighters – some of them members of the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine – had visited the restaurant.

In September, a group of two dozen international media organizations signed an open letter calling for attacks on journalists to stop.

“The continued deliberate shelling of journalists covering the war in Ukraine constitutes a flagrant international humanitarian law violation and a war crime,” reads the letter, which was signed by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Toronto-based Journalists for Human Rights, among other groups.

“Despite these clear international standards, Russian forces continue to intentionally target journalists, aiming to intimidate the press and suppress truth.”

At least 17 journalists have been killed covering the war in Ukraine, making it the world’s most dangerous conflict to report on other than the Israel-Hamas war, which saw 77 journalists – 70 Palestinians, four Israelis and three Lebanese – killed in the first three months of the conflict, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

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