A Russian strike killed at least 51 people gathered for a wake in an eastern Ukrainian village Thursday, provoking a wave of outrage from Western leaders for what a UN official called a “horrifying” attack.
AFP journalists on the scene in the aftermath saw rescuers carrying a corpse from the rubble and several charred bodies in civilian clothes lying side by side, and others in white body bags.
The mourners were in a cafe and there were also victims in a shop in the same building in the village, which has a population of 330 people, in the northeastern region of Kharkiv.
“My son was just found without a head, without arms, without legs, without anything. They recognised him from his documents,” Volodymyr Mukhovaty, 70, told AFP.
His wife and daughter-in-law were also attending the wake and although he had “little hope” of finding them alive, he watched rescue workers from a distance, just in case.
“I lived with my wife for 48 years,” he said. “I will not last long alone.”
– Six-year-old victim –
A six-year-old child was among the victims, said Interior Minister Igor Klymenko, who added that a total of 60 people had been attending a memorial service for a deceased fellow villager.
Groza is located more than 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the frontline town of Kupiansk in an area where Russian forces have been pushing to recapture territory they lost to Ukrainian troops last year.
Klymenko said initial evidence showed an Iskander missile had been used.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was attending a European summit in Spain, condemned the attack on social media and again in his evening address.
“The Russian military could not fail to know where they were hitting…,” he said. “And it was not a blind strike. “Who could launch a missile at them? Who? Only absolute evil.”
Zelensky said he had secured agreements from several countries to provide Kyiv with more air defence systems and artillery.
“We will have more air defence — there are clear agreements,” he said.
“This is very important before winter. Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Great Britain — thank you!”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had announced that Berlin would supply Kyiv with a new Patriot air-defence system and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock later posted on X, formerly Twitter, “As long as bombs hail on supermarkets and cafes, we do everything for #Ukraine to protect itself from Putin’s missile terror”.
Denise Brown, Ukraine coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), called the attack “absolutely horrifying” and that “intentionally directing an attack against civilians or civilian objects is a war crime”.
– ‘Depravity’ –
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the strike “demonstrated the depths of depravity Russian forces are willing to sink to,” a Downing Street spokesperson said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the regional assembly quoted by Ukrainian media said it was the single most deadly attack since the start of Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022.
Regional authorities had recently ordered mandatory evacuations in the area after a rise in Russian strikes.
Large swathes of the Kharkiv region were captured by Russian forces in the early days of their invasion launched in February last year.
Ukrainian forces recaptured much of the border territory during a lightning offensive late last year, but the regional capital, also called Kharkiv, still comes under regular shelling.
Zelensky’s advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said the attack had “no military logic”.
“This is a reminder to anyone who is willing to smile and shake hands with war criminal Putin at international conferences,” he said, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“A reminder to all those who want to sell something to Russia and return to bloody business as usual,” he said, adding: “Putin’s Russia is a true evil”.