Russian strike kills 18 people in Kharkiv megastore, the deadliest attack Ukraine has seen in weeks

Eighteen people, including a 12-year-old girl, are among those killed in a Russian strike that hit a large store in Kharkiv at the weekend, regional officials have said, making it the deadliest attack Ukraine has endured in several weeks.

Five people remain missing, Oleh Syniehubov, the head of the Kharkiv region military administration, said Monday. He said that 48 people were injured in the strike that hit the Epicenter hypermarket shopping center building while nearly 200 people were inside.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city, which sits near its border with Russia, has seen a spate of Russian attacks in recent weeks.

Security camera footage of the moment of the strike shows the building shake on impact, with the whole site immediately engulfed in thick smoke and flames. Police and witnesses described at least two explosions taking place.

Oleksandr Lutsenko, director of the Epicenter shopping center, said he was in his office on the second floor at the time of the two explosions.

“I started to make my way down the corridor to the evacuation exit, but it was dark and the whole corridor was covered in dust. There was no air to breathe,” he told CNN over the telephone.

“The employees were also leaving. Everyone was groping, and people were holding each other. We could hear the ceiling falling.”

Once outside, he saw the hypermarket was on fire. “There was black smoke everywhere, and it was hard to breathe. Some people were jumping out of the windows,” Lutsenko added.

Ukraine’s interior minister, Ihor Klymenko, said the hours following the strike were “hellish” and thanked everyone who helped to put out the fires. Photographs from inside the store following the attack show the building in complete ruin, with burnt stock and collapsed walls.

Emergency workers carry out the body of a victim of a Russian strike that hit a large store in Kharkiv. - Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images
Emergency workers carry out the body of a victim of a Russian strike that hit a large store in Kharkiv. - Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images

Ukrainian Catholic University identified the killed 12-year-old as Maria Myronenko, saying in a Facebook post that she had died in the strike alongside her mother, Iryna, who was a student at the institute. Her father had also been injured and was being treated in hospital, it said.

Serhii Bolvinov, Chief of the Investigative Department of the Kharkiv Regional Police, said the family had been shopping when the two bombs hit. Maria’s elder sister, Nadiya, 20, was not with them at the time, and learned of the deaths only after finding her father in hospital.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced the strike as a “brutal attack,” saying that “Russia is run by men who want to make it a norm – burning lives, destroying cities and villages, dividing people, and erasing national borders through war.”

Zelensky, who was in Spain for an official visit on Monday, urged Ukraine’s allies to provide it with more air defenses.

Meeting with Zelensky in Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced on Monday a new $1.08 billion weapons deal for Ukraine that “aims to reinforce air defense systems” and protect Ukrainian citizens and infrastructure from Russia’s attacks.

“We are sending Patriot missiles,” Sanchez said of the American-built air-defense system. “Zelensky asks for the platforms to launch those, asking how many we can give. We are sending another batch of Leopard tanks and above all, munitions that the [Ukrainian] troops need.”

Zelensky was due to visit Spain earlier this month but postponed the trip due to Russia’s offensive around Kharkiv and other parts of Ukraine. That offensive appears to continue, with Kharkiv enduring intense attacks daily.

The United States announced on Friday that it’s sending $275 million in military assistance to Ukraine as part of “efforts to help Ukraine repel Russia’s assault near Kharkiv,” according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The top US diplomat said the new tranche of assistance “contains urgently needed capabilities” for Ukrainian troops as they fight to hold back Russia’s advances toward the key northeastern city.

Ukraine tamps down French trainer comments

News of the new military assistance came as Ukraine’s Defense Ministry tamped down expectations that French military trainers could soon be in Ukraine after online comments from army chief Oleksandr Syrskyi appeared to suggest their arrival in country was a done deal.

“I welcome the initiative of France to send instructors to Ukraine to train Ukrainian military personnel,” Syrskyi had written on Telegram following a video conference between himself and the two countries’ defense ministers. “I have already signed the documents that will allow the first French instructors to visit our training centres and get acquainted with the infrastructure and personnel.”

Syrskyi’s statement gave no possible timeline, but seemed to indicate France was ready to make what would be a very significant shift in NATO countries’ involvement in Ukraine’s war with Russia.

Further heightening that sense, Syrskyi went on to write, “I believe that France’s determination will encourage other partners to join this ambitious project. I thanked the minister for the friendly support of the French people and military and economic assistance to Ukraine to repel Russian military aggression.”

In a later comment to CNN, apparently designed to lower expectations, and possibly soothe key allies, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry toned down the language, saying Kyiv had “expressed interest in the prospect of welcoming foreign instructors in Ukraine” ever since a conference in Paris at the end of February.

“We have ongoing discussions with France and other countries on this issue and have started internal paperwork to move forward when the decision is taken,” the short statement concluded.

The French Defense Ministry, in a comment to CNN, had a similar message about military trainers.

“As with all the projects discussed at the conference, we are continuing to work with the Ukrainians to understand their exact needs,” the statement said.

At the Paris conference, French President Emmanuel Macron had floated the idea that sending military trainers to Ukraine was one way Kyiv’s western allies could deploy troops in the country.

Additional reporting from Victoria Butenko and Daria Tarasova Markina in Kyiv and Xiaofei Xu in Paris

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