KREMENCHUK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian long-range bombers struck a crowded shopping center in Ukraine’s central city of Kremenchuk on Monday, raising fears of what President Volodymyr Zelensky called an “unimaginable” number of casualties in “the one of the most audacious terrorist attacks in European history.
Zelenskky said many of the more than 1,000 afternoon shoppers and employees inside the mall managed to escape. Giant plumes of black smoke, dust and orange flames emanated from the wreckage, as emergency crews rushed to search for victims in the shattered metal and concrete and put out the fires. Onlookers watched in distress at the sight of how an everyday activity like shopping could turn into an eyesore.
Casualty figures were changing as rescuers searched the smoldering rubble through early Tuesday. Ukrainian emergency services reported late Monday that at least 16 people were dead and around 60 injured.
Soldiers worked through the night carrying slabs of twisted metal and broken concrete, while one drilled into what was left of the mall’s roof. Drones swirled overhead, clouds of black smoke still emanating from the ruins hours after the fire was extinguished.
“We are working on dismantling the construction so that it is possible to bring machinery into it because the metal elements are very heavy and large, and it is impossible to dismantle them by hand,” said Volodymyr Hychkan, a manager. emergency services.
At Ukraine’s request, the UN Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting in New York on Tuesday to discuss the attack.
In the Russian government’s first commentary on the missile strike, the country’s first deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, alleged multiple inconsistencies which he did not elaborate on, claiming on Twitter that the incident was a provocation from Ukraine. Russia has repeatedly denied it was targeting civilian infrastructure, although Russian attacks have hit other shopping malls, theaters, hospitals, kindergartens and apartment buildings.
The missile strike came as Western leaders pledged continued support for Ukraine and the world’s major economies prepared new sanctions against Russia, including oil price caps and higher tariffs. on the goods. Meanwhile, the United States seemed ready to heed Zelenskyy’s call for more air defense systems, and NATO planned to increase the size of its rapid reaction forces nearly eightfold – to 300,000 troops. .
Zelenskyy said the mall posed “no threat to the Russian military” and had “no strategic value”. He accused Russia of sabotaging “people’s attempts to lead normal lives, which is what makes the occupiers so angry.”
In his overnight address, he said it appeared Russian forces had intentionally targeted the mall and added: “Today’s Russian attack on a mall in Kremenchuk is one of the most boldest in European history. He said Russia “has become the biggest terrorist organization in the world”.
Russia increasingly used long-range bombers during the war. Ukrainian officials said Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers flying over Russia’s western Kursk region fired the missile that hit the mall, as well as another that hit a sports arena in Kremenchuk.
The Russian strike echoed attacks earlier in the war that caused large numbers of civilian casualties – such as one in a march on a theater in Mariupol where many civilians had holed up, killing around 600 people, and another in April on a station in the east of Kramatorsk which killed at least 59 people.
“Russia continues to assert its powerlessness over ordinary civilians. It is useless to expect decency and humanity from him,” Zelenskyy said.
Kremenchuk Mayor Vitaliy Maletskiy wrote on Facebook that the attack “affected a densely populated area, which is 100% certain to have no connection to the armed forces.”
The United Nations called the strike “deplorable”, stressing that civilian infrastructure “should never be targeted”, said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric. Leaders of the Group of Seven issued a statement Monday evening condemning the attack and declaring that “indiscriminate attacks against innocent civilians constitute a war crime. Russian President Putin and those responsible will be held accountable. »
The attack coincided with Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine’s last stronghold in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk province, “firing fire” at the town of Lysychansk from the ground and air, according to the local governor. At least eight people were killed and more than 20 injured in Lysychansk when Russian rockets hit an area where a crowd had gathered to get water from a reservoir, Lugansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said.
The Eastern Dam was part of the intensified offensive by Russian forces aimed at wresting the eastern region of Donbass from Ukraine. Over the weekend, the Russian military and its local separatist allies forced Ukrainian government troops out of the nearby town of Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk.
On Monday, west of Lysychansk, the mayor of the city of Sloviansk – potentially the next major battleground – said Russian forces fired cluster munitions, including one that hit a residential area. Authorities said the number of casualties has not yet been confirmed. The Associated Press saw one death: A man’s body lay hunched over a car door frame, his blood pooling on the floor from chest and head injuries. The blast blew out most of the windows of surrounding buildings and the cars parked below, littering the floor with shattered glass.
“Everything is now destroyed,” said resident Valentina Vitkovska, in tears as she spoke of the explosion. “We are the only people who still live in this part of the building. There is no power. I can’t even call to tell others what happened to us.
Ahead of Monday’s attacks, at least six civilians were killed and 31 others injured in heavy Russian shelling of various Ukrainian cities over the past 24 hours, including Kyiv and major cities in the south and east of country, according to Zelenskyy’s office. A bombardment on Monday in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, left at least five people dead and 15 injured.
Russian forces continued to target the key port of Odessa in the southern Black Sea. A missile attack destroyed residential buildings and injured six people, including a child, Ukrainian authorities said.
In Lysychansk, at least five high-rise buildings and the last road bridge were damaged over the past day, Haidai said. A crucial highway linking the city to government-controlled territory to the south has been rendered impassable. The city’s pre-war population of around 100,000 dwindled to less than 10,000.
Analysts say Lysychansk’s location on the banks of the Silverskiy Donets River gives Ukrainian defenders a major advantage.
“It’s a very hard nut to crack. The Russians could spend many months and a lot of effort storming Lysychansk,” military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.
In other developments, in Germany’s Bavarian Alps, leaders of the G7 countries unveiled plans to seek new sanctions and pledged to continue supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes”. In a joint statement on Monday after holding a video-link session with Zelenskyy, the leaders stressed their “unwavering commitment to support the government and people of Ukraine in their courageous defense of their country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Elsewhere, Washington was to announce the purchase of an advanced surface-to-air missile system for Ukraine.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced plans to significantly expand the alliance’s rapid reaction forces as part of its response to an “era of strategic competition”. The NATO Response Force currently numbers around 40,000 troops. NATO will agree to provide additional military support to Ukraine – including secure communications and anti-drone systems – when its leaders meet in Spain for a summit later this week, Stoltenberg said.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense has said Russia is likely to rely increasingly on reserve forces in the coming weeks. Analysts said a call for reservists by Russia could dramatically shift the balance of the war, but could also have negative political consequences for President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Oleksandr Stashevskyi in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.
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