Four children were among 11 people killed in a devastating Russian rocket attack on a packed pizza restaurant in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk.
Ukraine’s state emergency service said at least 56 people were injured, some critically, when two Iskander missiles slammed into the cafe in the city centre on Tuesday evening, when it was full of diners. The restaurant is popular with civilians and international journalists.
On Wednesday, firefighters were combing through the ruins in the hope of finding survivors buried beneath concrete debris.
The missile strike occurred at 7.32pm on Tuesday, hitting RIA Pizza and a popular shopping plaza. “Two rockets were fired at a food establishment in the centre of the city where there were a great number of civilians,” said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of the Donetsk region.
A large crowd gathered at the scene as police officers, ambulance crews and the military worked to recover victims. As many as a dozen people were pulled from the ruins, according to witnesses.
Among the dead named on Wednesday were twin sisters, Yulia and Anna Aksenchenko, both 14. The girls were about to finish eighth grade. A 17-year-old girl was also killed and a baby suffered head injuries.
Survivors were taken to hospital in Kramatorsk. One of the restaurant’s cooks, Ruslan, 32, said there were “quite a lot of people” inside at the time. “I was lucky,” he said.
A woman called Natalia told Agence France-Presse that her half-brother Nikita, 23, was inside near the pizza oven. “They can’t get him out, he was covered by debris,” she said.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, said Russia hit Kramatorsk with two short-range Iskander ballistic missiles. “They have a circular error probable (CEP) rating of between 30 and 70 metres, or 5-7 metres when equipped with a homing system, which means Russia was deliberately targeting civilians. Not that anyone needs any more proof of this any more,” he said.
“Russia deliberately targeted crowded areas,” Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, Ihor Klymenko, added on Telegram.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in his nightly video address condemned the “brutal” attack on civilians. “Each such manifestation of terror proves over and over again to us and the whole world that Russia deserves only one thing as a result of everything it has done – defeat and a tribunal, fair and legal trials against all Russian murderers and terrorists,” Zelenskiy said.
The White House national security council, asked about the attack, said: “We condemn Russia’s brutal strikes against the people of Ukraine, which have caused widespread death and destruction and taken the lives of so many Ukrainian civilians.”
Separately on Wednesday, the US president, Joe Biden, said Vladimir Putin “was clearly losing the war”. “He’s losing the war at home, and he has become a bit of a pariah around the world,” Biden told reporters.
When asked about the attack on Kramatorsk, the Kremlin said on Wednesday that its forces only attack military targets.
“The Russian Federation does not strike at civilian infrastructure,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “Strikes are carried out on objects that are connected with military infrastructure in one way or another.”
Moscow has in both Ukraine and Syria – where it supports dictator Bashar al-Assad – bombed hospitals, schools and markets and been accused by rights groups of war crimes.
Later on Wednesday, the Russian defence ministry reported that the target hit in Kramatorsk was a “temporary command post” of the Ukrainian army, but provided no details of the strike.
Kramatorsk, once a city of 150,000 inhabitants, is the last major urban centre under Ukrainian control in the east of the country. It lies about 18 miles (30km) from the frontline, and next to the city of Sloviansk.
Some residents have left but many remain. Restaurants and hotels have mostly closed down. The pizzeria and nearby shopping centre kept going, and are typically full of local people shopping or relaxing, as well as troops stocking up on food during breaks from the fighting.
Several photographers and correspondents were having dinner when the missiles struck. They included three Colombians: novelist and journalist Héctor Abad Faciolince, Catalina Gómez Ángel, a correspondent for France 24 and Sergio Jaramillo Caro, who recently served as the country’s high commissioner for peace. “Russia has attacked three defenseless Colombian civilians, violating the protocols of war,” said Colombian president Gustavo Petro, adding that the country would lodge a diplomatic complaint.
Ukraine’s SBU intelligence agency said it had arrested a local resident who helped coordinate the strike and allegedly sent video footage of the cafe to the Russian military.
The SBU said the man it detained was an employee of a gas transportation company, who is suspected of informing the Russian military about the cafe’s popularity. The SBU provided no evidence for its claim./The Guardian/