Scores of civilians are feared killed or injured after a Russian rocket strike hit a crowded shopping mall in Ukraine's central city of Kremenchuk, Ukrainian officials said Monday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a Telegram post that the number of victims was “unimaginable,” citing reports that more than 1,000 civilians were inside at the time of the attack.
Minutes later, Kyryl Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the presidential office, said in a Telegram post that at least two people were dead and about 20 were hurt, of whom nine were in serious condition.
Zelenskyy stressed that the target presented “no threat to the Russian army” and had “no strategic value.” He accused of 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,” Zelenskyy said.
Earlier on Monday, Kremenchuk’s mayor said people had been killed and injured in an attack on a “very crowded area” of no military importance, but gave no details of casualties.
“A rocket attack on Kremenchuk hit a very crowded area, which is 100% certain not to have any links to the armed forces. There are killed and injured people,” the city’s mayor, Vitaliy Maletskiy, wrote on Facebook, without giving the number of victims.
Ukrainian authorities said emergency teams were at the scene.
The Ukrainian regional governor, Dmitry Lunin, confirmed that more than a thousand civilians were inside the shopping center at the time of the attack. Writing on Telegram, Lunin said that the building remained engulfed by flames.
The attack came as Russia was mounting an all-out assault on the last Ukrainian stronghold in the eastern Luhansk region, “pouring fire” on the city of Lysychansk from the ground and air, according to the local governor. Western leaders pledged steadfast and continued support for Kyiv.
NATO will also agree to deliver further military support to Ukraine - including secure communication and anti-drone systems - when they convene in Spain for a summit, according to the military alliance's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Russian forces were pummeling Lysychansk after capturing the neighboring city of Sievierodonetsk in recent days. It’s part of a stepped-up Russian offensive to wrest the broader Donbas region from Ukrainian government control in what Western experts say has become the new main goal of President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, now in its fifth month.
“They’re pouring fire on the city both from the air and from the ground. After the takeover of Sievierodonetsk, the enemy army has concentrated all its forces on capturing (our) last stronghold in the Luhansk region: Lysychansk,” Haidai told The Associated Press.
The Russians were trying to blockade the city from the south, “destroying everything that their artillery and multiple rocket launchers can reach,” Haidai said. In recent weeks, Russian troops have captured several villages and towns southeast of Lysychansk, and were trying to halt access to the city from the south.
Meanwhile to the west, the mayor of the city of Sloviansk — potentially the next major battleground — said Russian forces fired cluster munitions on the city after dawn, including one that hit a residential neighborhood.
Authorities say the number of dead and injured are still to be confirmed. The AP saw one fatality: A man’s body lay hunched over a car door frame, his blood pooling onto the ground from scattered chest and head wounds.
Ukraine forces have spent weeks consolidating their defenses around Sloviansk out of concern that it could be the next big Russian target if Lysychansk falls. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia wanted to “capture and completely destroy” Sloviansk.
The shockwave from Monday's 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. We are the only people left living in this part of the building. There is no power," said local resident Valentina Vitkovska, in tears as she spoke about the blast. "I can’t even call to tell others what had happened to us.”
Overall, Zelenskyy office said at least six civilians were killed and 31 others injured as part of intense Russian shelling against various Ukrainian cities over the past 24 hours — including Kyiv and major cities in the country’s south and east but not counting the attack in Kremenchuk.
It said Russian forces fired rockets that killed two people and injured five overnight in and near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and continued to target the key southern port of Odesa. A missile attack destroyed residential buildings and injuring six people, including a child, it said.
In Lysychansk, at least five high-rise buildings in the city and the last road bridge were damaged over the past day, Haidai, the governor, said. A crucial highway linking the city to government-held territory further south was rendered impassable because of shelling.
Such shelling is also making the evacuation of civilians increasingly difficult, Haidai said. The city had a pre-war population of around 100,000, approximately one-tenth of whom remain.
Analysts say that Lysychansk’s location high on the banks of the Siverskiy Donets river, as well as its large area dotted with hills, give a major advantage to the city’s Ukrainian defenders.
“It’s a very hard nut to crack. The Russians could spend many months and much effort storming Lysychansk,” said military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
The Siverskiy Donets river encloses Lysychansk from the north and east, while the Ukrainian army continues to hold territory west of the city, which it uses to supply arms and humanitarian aid.