The death toll in a rocket attack on a Ukrainian shopping centre by Russian forces has risen to 18.
Emergency services in Ukraine said on Tuesday that 18 people had died in the attack on a mall in the central city of Kremenchuk, while another 59 were injured and 25 hospitalised. Another 36 people are thought to be missing.
According to those clearing rubble at the site, 60 per cent of the mall was destroyed by the strike with over 400 workers assisting in the effort.
Social media footage showed a huge fire and dark smoke billowing from the mall following the attack on Monday afternoon. Firefighters and soldiers were seen pulling out mangled pieces of metal as they searched for survivors.
Condemenation of the deadly strike was swift.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky said the attack showed it was impossible to “expect decency and humanity” from Moscow. An adviser to the president, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Russia hit the shopping centre “just because it wants to kill”, and called it “a terrorist state”.
The UN described the attack as “deplorable”, while US President Joe Biden called it cruel. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “appalling”, adding that it demonstrated “once again the depths of cruelty and barbarism to which the Russian leader will sink”.
Moscow’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that the blaze at the mall was caused by the “detonation of stored ammunition for western weapons”, said Moscow’s defence ministry, but provided no evidence to back up its claim.
It added: “On 27 June, in the city of Kremenchuk, the Russian aerospace forces delivered a strike with high-precision air-based weapons on hangars with weapons and ammunition received from the United States and European countries.
As a result of a high-precision strike, western-made weapons and ammunition concentrated in a storage area for further shipment to the Ukrainian group of troops in Donbas were hit. The detonation of stored ammunition for western weapons caused a fire in a non-functioning shopping centre located next to the plant.”
Russia has always denied targeting civilians in the war.
The attack came as leaders gathered for the G7 summit in Germany’s Bavarian Alps where the war in Ukraine was high on the agenda. On Tuesday, Nato leaders will meet in Madrid for a summit, with Ukraine top of the agenda.
Ahead of two days of meetings, Nato announced it was boosting the number of its forces to be on high-alert because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from 40,000 to more than 300,000.
It’s the biggest overhaul of collective defence since the Cold War, he said.
“We will transform the Nato response force and increase the number of our high readiness forces to well over 300,000.”
Mr Stoltenberg also confirmed that Nato will expand troop deployments in its European member countries that are closest to Russia and agree to deliver further military support to Ukraine — including secure communication and anti-drone systems.
Kremenchuk, an industrial city of 217,000 before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, lies on the Dnipro river in the region of Poltava and is the site of Ukraine’s biggest oil refinery.
Meanwhile, France’s President Emmanuel Macron called the attack a “new war crime” on Tuesday and vowed the West’s support for Kyiv would not waiver, adding that Moscow “cannot and should not win” the war.
As Macron spoke, rescuers combed through the charred rubble of the shopping mall that authorities said was struck when more than 1,000 afternoon shoppers and workers were inside. Kateryna Romashyna, a local resident, told The Associated Press that she had just arrived at the mall when an explosion knocked her down.
“I ran away from the epicentre with all of my strength,” she said.
Fighting back tears, she added: “You have to be a real monster” to strike a shopping mall.