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Women and children who said they fled this morning from nearby Yavoriv in Ukraine arrive at an aid stage for refugees at the Budomierz border crossing on March 13, 2022 in Budomierz, Poland.SeanGallup/Getty Images

Russia’s missile attack on a training centre in Western Ukraine shed light on one of the worst-kept secrets of the first three weeks of this war: Some of the thousands of foreign fighters who arrived hoping to help defend Ukraine were training in the same base used by Western armies before the Russian invasion.

As many as 30 Russian cruise missiles slammed into the International Centre for Peacekeeping and Security on Sunday, killing at least 35 people and injuring more than 130 others. Three sources told The Globe and Mail that at least one Canadian was hurt in the attack, and there was growing suggestion that international fighters may have died, despite the Ukrainian military’s claim that no foreigners were killed. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.

The base, which is in the town of Yavoriv, is less than 20 kilometres from the Polish border. Before Russia launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, Yavoriv had been the headquarters of Western efforts to train the Ukrainian military, including Canada’s own 260-soldier Operation Unifier, which was evacuated 10 days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops in Ukraine.

Days before Sunday’s attack, there had been widespread chatter in the nearby city of Lviv about how Yavoriv was now being used to train the foreigners flooding into the country. Ukraine says it has received about 20,000 applications from 52 countries to join its Foreign Legion, which is part of its reservist Territorial Defence Forces. Hundreds of Canadians have applied.

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Yuri (R), a bus driver, and his son Ruslan, a doctor, stand in front of a bus damaged in this morning’s air strikes at a nearby military complex, while they wait outside Novoiavorivsk District Hospital on March 13, 2022 in Novoiavorivsk, Ukraine.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

For its part, Russia has said it is also inviting foreign fighters from Syria and the Central African Republic to join the fight on its side, though there is no evidence yet of fighters from those countries making an appearance in Ukraine.

Journalists were sworn to secrecy about the location of the Yavoriv training effort, but it was widely known where newly arrived foreign fighters were being housed and trained. The Russian military obviously also knew.

Russia claimed to have killed 180 “foreign mercenaries” in the attack on Yavoriv. While that number is viewed as high, there were also suspicions about the Ukrainian contention that no foreign volunteers were killed or injured in the attack.

In a video posted to Reddit, a French-speaking fighter in a military uniform uses his camera to show the orange fire burning in the aftermath of the Yavoriv attack. “I have friends who are dead. The base has been destroyed, so we are running away,” he says, crying as he pans the camera from his face back to the smouldering blaze in the distance. “There it is, for those who say it’s not true.”

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A foreign fighter from the UK prepares to depart towards the front line in the east of Ukraine following the Russian invasion, at the main train station in Lviv, Ukraine, on March 5.KAI PFAFFENBACH/Reuters

The United States said Monday that the attack was carried out by long-range bombers that launched the missiles from Russian airspace.

“It was a military base for training foreigners. It’s hard to imagine that only Ukrainians were killed,” said David Plaster, a former U.S. military medic who lived in Ukraine for 10 years before the war and has been helping train Ukrainian reservists in combat medicine. He said the location of where the foreigners were being trained was too widely known – and there were insufficient air defences in and around Yavoriv to prevent what happened.

“I know there were a lot of injuries – a lot more than I think is acceptable for a location that should have been better protected,” he said.

Chris Ecklund, a philanthropist from Hamilton who has set up a group to assist foreign fighters headed to Ukraine, said he was aware of one Canadian who had been injured in the attack and is believed to be in a slight state of shock. “He could have a possible concussion as well and he’s got metal and glass fragments embedded that he’s picking out with his fingers,” Mr. Ecklund said.

Two other sources said they were involved in aiding at least one injured Canadian. It wasn’t clear whether they were speaking about the same person Mr. Ecklund was referring to.

Before the attack, Mr. Ecklund’s group, Canadian Heroes, had already begun planning for the possibility that Canadian volunteers could be killed fighting in Ukraine – and looking at raising funds for the repatriation of their bodies. “Sadly, we must think and plan for the worst in Ukraine,” he wrote in a message posted on social media. “We are asking all of you to spread the word, that when and if this service is needed, to step up and show the fallen heroes and their families that we are there for them and will take care of bringing their loved one home.”

Mr. Plaster said that before the attack, “thousands” of foreign volunteers had been arriving in Ukraine from all over Europe and North America. He had been trying to persuade would-be fighters to follow the official process – which begins with getting registered at the Ukrainian embassy in their home country – “so they don’t become cannon fodder.”

“A soldier has to shoot, move and communicate. If they don’t go through a proper system, their ability to shoot and move is going to be reduced. They’re going to be stopped at every blockpost and forced to explain what’s going on and why they have an unregistered firearm,” he said, using the Ukrainian word for a military checkpoint. “They’re going to be watched by FSB agents, and their vehicles are going to be targeted for assassination.” (The FSB is Russia’s spy agency.)

Mr. Plaster argued that the most useful thing skilled foreign veterans could do is train Ukrainians to better defend their country. “It’s a lot more useful to pass your skills on to Ukrainians who know the land and who can legally shoot and who know the language and can instinctively tell when someone is theirs or not theirs.” Those who just head for the front line with a weapon and a limited understanding of what is happening around them “are a danger to themselves and to Ukrainians.”

Some Canadians serving in Ukraine were quickly deemed ready to join existing military formations.

Jordan Mullins, a 26-year-old from Oshawa, Ont., is one of two Canadians who signed up to join the Georgian Legion, a paramilitary unit primarily composed of veterans of Georgia’s own 2008 war against Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. He entered Ukraine earlier this month.

Mr. Mullins told The Globe in a telephone interview that he decided to sign up to fight in Ukraine because “the international community is not doing as much as I hoped” to help the country in its war against Russia. “I think that everybody deserves freedom. This is a fight about Ukraine being able to choose for themselves,” he said, referring to Russia’s prewar demand that Ukraine be barred from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance.

An alumnus of Ontario Tech University, Mr. Mullins declined to say whether he was a Canadian army veteran. But on his Facebook page, he posted that he had been made a squad leader just days after joining the Georgian Legion.

“So far so good, everything good. Did some tactical training, some fire manoeuvre drills,” he said in a short video posted to Facebook last week. “Just had a nice meal. Cooked something up in my room earlier, too. So we’re eating well. Everybody’s good, everybody’s in high spirits.” He finished the message with “Slava Ukraina,” or “glory to Ukraine.”

Mamuka Mamulashvili, commander of the Georgian Legion, told The Globe that he had sent the other Canadian volunteer back home since he was a serving member of the Canadian Armed Forces and would have put himself in legal jeopardy if he fought in a war that Canada is not a participant in.

Mr. Mullins said that for operational security reasons he couldn’t discuss where he was stationed. Before the war, the Georgian Legion had a base on the outskirts of Kyiv, given to them by the Ukrainian government. Asked whether it was dangerous where he was, Mr. Mullins replied: “I’d say so.”

In other Facebook postings Mr. Mullins alternated between looking stern – with a Canadian flag affixed to the front of his bulletproof vest, relating the experience of hearing his first air-raid siren – and playful, dancing in one video to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off in front of a wall of sandbags.

He said his family “supported him fully” in his decision to go fight in Ukraine, and promised in another Facebook posting “to give em hell and come home in one piece.”

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