Two Russian missiles have hit a crowded shopping centre in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk, killing at least 16 people and wounding 59, according to emergency services.
The attack on Monday caused a huge fire and sent dark smoke billowing into the sky, footage circulated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy showed.
The Ukrainian leader called the attack “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history” and said that many of the more than 1,000 afternoon shoppers and staff inside the mall had managed to escape.
Dmytro Lunin, governor of the central Poltava region, wrote on Telegram that more bodies were likely to be found as rescue workers search through the smouldering rubble.
“It’s an act of terrorism against civilians,” he said, suggesting there was no military target nearby that Russia could have been aiming at.
Aerial photos showed the structure reduced to twisted metal, with workers combing through growing piles of rubble.
Rescue workers and soldiers worked into the night to lug sheets of twisted metal and broken concrete, as one drilled into what remained of the shopping center’s roof. Clouds of dark smoke still emanated from the ruins several hours after the fire had been put out.
“We don’t understand how many people could be remaining under the rubble,” the regional rescue service chief said on television.
Another act of the russian genocide of the Ukrainian people. This time the ruscists targeted a mall in #Kremenchuk, in the afternoon when it is always especially crowded. The war criminals wanted to kill the civilians, deliberately aiming for the maximum number of casualties. pic.twitter.com/3PbCnjc7PU
— Defence of Ukraine (@DefenceU) June 27, 2022
Zelenskyy said the shopping centre presented “no threat to the Russian army” and had “no strategic value”. He accused Russia of sabotaging “people’s attempts to live a normal life, which make the occupiers so angry”.
“Russia continues to take out its impotence on ordinary civilians. It is useless to hope for decency and humanity on its part,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Kyiv, said about half of those wounded were receiving treatment in hospital.
“Ukrainians are saying that there were no strategic targets that could have been aimed at in this attack,” Stratford said. “What we do know is that the city’s bridge yesterday was hit by a Russian shell, according to the Ukrainian military, and at least one was killed and five others injured.”
Describing “terrifying pictures” of flames and smoke billowing from the shopping centre, Stratford said “the Kremlin tells the world that they are trying to avoid civilian casualties in this war.
“Kremenchuk is about 200km from the southern front line, and similar kind of distance to the east,” he said.
Mayor Vitaliy Maletskiy wrote on Facebook that the attack “hit a very crowded area, which is 100 percent certain not to have any links to the armed forces”.
Ukraine’s air force command said the mall was hit by two long-range X-22 missiles fired from Tu-22M3 bombers that flew from Shaykovka airfield in Russia’s Kaluga region.
Large shopping mall in Kremenchuk with hundreds of civilians inside has been hit by a Russian strike. Russia is a disgrace to humanity and it must face consequences. The response should be more heavy arms for Ukraine, more sanctions on Russia, and more businesses leaving Russia. pic.twitter.com/Uvi6fbyShK
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) June 27, 2022
The attack prompted condemnations from Ukrainian officials across the board, including foreign minster Dmytro Kuleba, who called for more heavy weaponry to be sent to Ukraine and further sanctions on Russia.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s office condemned the attack as “totally deplorable”.
Kremenchuk had so far been spared direct hits in the conflict, Guterres spokesman Stephane Dujarric said at a daily press briefing.
“Any attack that hits a shopping mall is totally deplorable,” the UN official said.
“We once again stress that the parties are obliged under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure,” he added.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the attack on the mall demonstrates the “depths of cruelty and barbarism” of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“Putin must realise that his behaviour will do nothing but strengthen the resolve that the UK and every other G7 country stand by the Ukraine for as long as it takes,” he said.
But Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, wrote on Twitter, without citing evidence, that the attack was a “Ukrainian provocation”.
“Exactly what Kiev regime needs to keep focus of attention on Ukraine before (the) NATO Summit,” he said, referring to the alliance’s Madrid gathering due to begin on Tuesday.
Russian offensive escalating
The attack came as Russia was mounting an all-out assault on the last Ukrainian stronghold in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk province, “pouring fire” on the city of Lysychansk from the ground and air, according to the local governor.
Russian forces appear to be stepping up longer-range attacks on the country after forcing Ukrainian troops out of the neighbouring city of Severodonetsk in recent days.
Western leaders, meanwhile, continue to pledge steadfast and continued support for Kyiv.
NATO will agree to deliver further military support to Ukraine – including secure communication and anti-drone systems – when its leaders convene in Spain on Tuesday, according to the military alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg.
The battle for Severodonetsk and Lysychansk is part of a stepped-up Russian offensive to take control of the broader Donbas region from Ukraine.