By Olena Harmash and Pavel Polityuk
KYIV (Reuters) -At least 17 people were killed and 32 wounded in a Russian attack on a crowded market in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kostiantynivka on Wednesday as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv, Ukrainian officials said.
Footage circulated online by presidential officials showed people falling to the ground or running for cover after a huge explosion in front of them, seconds after some look up to the sky when they hear what sounds like a missile approaching.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy condemned the attack, saying a market, shops and a pharmacy had been struck in the industrial city close to the battlefield.
“This Russian evil must be defeated as soon as possible,” Zelenskiy said on the Telegram messaging app.
“When someone in the world still attempts to deal with anything Russian, it means turning a blind eye to this reality. The audacity of evil. The brazenness of wickedness. Utter inhumanity.”
He later told a press conference in the capital Kyiv that he believed it had been a deliberate attack on “a peaceful city”.
Reuters video footage after the attack showed shattered store fronts, gutted cars and a street littered with debris and twisted metal. Emergency services picked through the rubble.
“I only saw a flash and then shouted to my colleagues: ‘Lie on the floor. All the customers lay down on the floor … I heard things falling over, then everything was covered in smoke and fire started,” said Diana Khodak, an employee of a pharmacy hit in the attack.
“One woman walked into the pharmacy on her own. Her arm and leg were bleeding, she had a big wound on her arm. Another woman was carried inside by soldiers. She had an open fracture and her bone was sticking out from her leg,” Khodak said.
Kostiantynivka, which had a population of about 70,000 before Russia’s invasion 18 months ago, is about 30 km (19 miles) from the devastated city of Bakhmut, where fighting has been heavy for months.
It is about 560 km from Kyiv, where Blinken met Zelenskiy and other Ukrainian leaders on a visit intended to show support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.
Blinken said Ukraine had made important progress in its three-month-old counteroffensive against Russian forces and announced a new package of U.S. wartime assistance worth more than $1 billion.
Russia did not immediately comment on the attack, and has denied deliberately targeting civilians. The Kremlin had earlier on Wednesday said of Blinken’s visit that Moscow believed Washington planned to continue funding Ukraine’s military “to wage this war to the last Ukrainian”.
SERIES OF ATTACKS
Wednesday’s strike followed a series of Russian attacks on cities in eastern Ukraine in which civilian infrastructure has been hit, including a popular cafe, a hotel and shops.
It also followed air strikes hours earlier on Kyiv and the southern region of Odesa. No casualties were reported in the capital but officials said one person was killed in the Odesa region.
Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said the search and rescue operation in Kostiantynivka had been completed.
“As of 18:00 (1500 GMT) 17 people were killed and 32 were injured as a result of Russian shelling,” he said.
Police said the market had been crowded when it was hit at around 2 p.m. (1100 GMT), and that nearly 30 shopping kiosks, an apartment block, a bank and cars were damaged.
A video released by police showed rescuers searching through the kiosks and, as bodies were taken out in black sacks, people shouting: “Who have you found?”
The video also showed the pharmacy, its floor covered in blood.
“At the moment of the strike civilians were here, they were buying medicines and this is what happened. People died here, the entire floor is covered in blood,” a police spokeswoman is heard saying in the video.
(Additional reporting by Anna Pruchnicka, Editing by Timothy Heritage, Ron Popeski and Grant McCool)