By Vitalii Hnidyi
HROZA, Ukraine (Reuters) -A Russian missile slammed into a cafe and grocery store in a village in northeastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing 51 people during a gathering to mourn a fallen Ukrainian soldier, Ukrainian officials said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the incident was a deliberate attack on civilians and “no blind strike”.
Large piles of bricks, shattered metal and building materials remained where the cafe and shop were hit early in the afternoon in Hroza village in Kharkiv region.
The attack was the deadliest in Kharkiv region since Russia’s invasion more than 19 months ago, a regional official told public broadcaster Suspilne. It also appeared to be one of the biggest civilian death tolls in any single Russian strike.
Regional police told national television the death toll stood at 51, with six injured and three missing. Some of them were mourners gathering in the cafe after a service for a fallen soldier from the village.
“A deliberate missile strike on a village in Kharkiv region on an ordinary store and cafe,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address, delivered while attending a summit of the European Political Community in Spain.
“Russian troops could not have been unaware of where they were hitting. This was no blind strike.”
Moscow did not immediately comment on the events in Hroza. Moscow denies deliberately targeting civilians, but many have been killed in attacks that have hit residential areas as well as energy, defence, port, grain and other facilities.
The village was near the town of Kupiansk, recaptured by Ukrainian forces late last year and close to one of the war’s front lines.
Zelenskiy said a six-year-old boy was among the dead and regional officials said families had remained in the village despite a war-time order to evacuate.
TAKING AWAY THE DEAD
Rescue workers made their way through mounds of debris and laid out bodies in a field next to a children’s playground.
Some were placed in white body bags and taken away. Others were barely covered by carpets or other materials, with hands awkwardly protruding.
“It’s difficult to talk about this, but we only found bits and pieces and remains of the bodies,” said regional police investigator Serhiy Bolvinov. “We’ll use DNA laboratories to identify the bodies.”
The missile hit during a service marking the reburial in his home village of a soldier who had died in action elsewhere.
“There were only civilians. The boy was from this village. When he died, we were under occupation. The (family) decided to rebury him, to bring him home,” said resident Oleksandr Mukhovatyi.
“Then this happened. Someone betrayed us. The attack was precise, it all landed in the coffee shop.”
Mukhovatyi said his mother, brother, and sister-in-law were among the dead.
Prosecutors told public broadcaster Suspilne that the son of the soldier undergoing reburial — also a soldier — was also killed in the attack, along with the son’s wife and mother.
Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said local officials had been sitting down for a meal when the missile struck.
“From every family, from every household, there were people present at this commemoration. This is a terrible tragedy,” Klymenko told Ukrainian television.
Klymenko cited preliminary information that he said showed the attack was carried out with an Iskander ballistic missile.
He said the strike was clearly targeted and that Ukrainian security services had launched an investigation into the matter.
“The terrorists deliberately carried out the attack during lunchtime, to ensure a maximum number of casualties,” said Defence Minister Rustem Umerov.
“There were no military targets there. This is a heinous crime intended to scare Ukrainians.”
Russia has frequently carried out air strikes since the start of its invasion. Ukraine has launched a counteroffensive in the south and east that it says is gradually making progress.
(Additional reporting by Olena Harmash and Yuliia Dysa, Editing by Timothy Heritage, Andrew Heavens, Ron Popeski David Gregorio and Rod Nickel)