SLOVIANSK – Rescuers searched through the charred rubble of a shopping mall Tuesday looking for more victims of a Russian missile strike that killed at least 18 and wounded scores in what Ukraine's president called “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said more than 1,000 afternoon shoppers and workers were inside the mall in the city of Kremenchuk. Giant plumes of black smoke, dust and orange flames billowed from the wreckage as emergency crews combed through broken metal and concrete for victims. Drones whirred above, clouds of dark smoke still emanating from the ruins several hours after the fire was extinguished.
Casualty figures rose as rescuers sifted through the smoldering rubble. The regional governor, Dmytro Lunin, said at least 18 people were killed and 59 others sought medical assistance, of whom 25 were hospitalized. The region declared a day of mourning Tuesday for the victims of the attack.
“We are working to dismantle the construction so that it is possible to get machinery in there since the metal elements are very heavy and big, and disassembling them by hand is impossible,” said Volodymyr Hychkan, an emergency services official.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova, who is leading investigations into possible war crimes, said the missile attack was one of Russia’s “crimes against humanity,” noting that the Russian military has been “systematically shelling civilian infrastructure with the aim to scare people, to kill people, to bring terror to our cities and villages.”
Venediktova emphasized the need for Ukrainians across the entire country to remain alert, adding that they should expect a similar strike "every minute.”
Wayne Jordash, a British barrister who is working with Venediktova’s office to investigate possible war crimes, rejected claims that a factory located near the shopping mall was a military object.
“The first indications are that the factory that got hit is a road construction factory, not a military target," Jordash said. “We need to investigate whether there’s military targets nearby, and the first indications as I say is that there aren’t any military targets nearby.”
At Ukraine’s request, the U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting in New York on Tuesday to discuss the attack.
In the first Russian government comment on the missile strike, the country’s first deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, alleged multiple inconsistencies that he didn’t specify, claiming on Twitter that the incident was a provocation by Ukraine. Russia has repeatedly denied it targets civilian infrastructure, even though Russian attacks have hit other shopping malls, theaters, hospitals, kindergartens and apartment buildings in the four-month war.
On Tuesday, Russian forces struck the Black Sea city of Ochakiv in the Mykolaiv region, damaging apartment buildings and killing two, including a 6-year-old child. A further six people, four of them children, were wounded. One of them, a 3-month-old baby, is in a coma, according to local officials.
The missile strike on Kremenchuk occurred as Western leaders pledged continued support for Ukraine and the world’s major economies prepared new sanctions against Russia, including a price cap on oil and higher tariffs on goods.
Group of Seven leaders condemned the attack in a statement late Monday saying “indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime," noting that "Russian President Putin and those responsible will be held to account.”
The Russian strike echoed earlier attacks that caused large numbers of civilian casualties — such as one in March on a Mariupol theater where many civilians had holed up, killing an estimated 600, and another in April on a train station in eastern Kramatorsk that killed at least 59 people.
Zelenskyy said the mall 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.”
In his nightly address, he said that Russian forces had intentionally targeted the shopping center in "one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history,” denouncing Russia as “the largest terrorist organization in the world.”
Russia has increasingly used long-range bombers in the war. Ukrainian officials said Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers flying over Russia’s western Kursk region fired the missiles, one of which hit the shopping center and another that struck a sports arena in Kremenchuk.
The U.S. appeared ready to respond to 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.
The attack on Kremenchuk coincided with Russia’s 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. At least eight people were killed and more than 20 wounded in Lysychansk when Russian rockets hit an area where a crowd gathered to obtain water from a tank, Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said.
The barrage was part of Russian forces’ intensified offensive aimed at wresting the eastern Donbas region from Ukraine. Over the weekend, the Russian military and their local separatist allies forced Ukrainian government troops out of Lysychansk’s neighboring city, Sievierodonetsk.
To the west of Lysychansk on Monday, the mayor of the city of Sloviansk — potentially the next major battleground — said Russian forces fired cluster munitions, including one that hit a residential neighborhood. Authorities said the number of victims had yet to be confirmed. The Associated Press saw one fatality: A man’s body lay hunched over a car door frame, his blood pooling onto the ground from chest and head wounds. The blast blew out most windows in the surrounding apartment blocks and the cars parked below, littering the ground with broken glass.
“Everything is now destroyed,” said resident Valentina Vitkovska, in tears as she spoke about the blast. “We are the only people left living in this part of the building. There is no power. I can’t even call to tell others what had happened to us.”
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Oleksandr Stashevskyi in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine