Death toll rises to at least 18 in Kremenchuk mall attack as Ukrainians search for missing

Rescuers dig through the rubble of the Amstor shopping center in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, on June 28, a day after a Russian missile flattened the building.Photograph by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Tears welled up under Viktoria Volya’s oversized sunglasses as she carefully placed a flower into one of 16 buckets lined up near the burned-out shell of the Amstor shopping center on Tuesday morning. Each cube represented one of the dead recovered from the mall after a Russian missile attack on Monday, a number that has since risen to 18.

Ms. Volya said that she still did not know the fate of the friendly young pregnant woman who worked at the lingerie kiosk in the mall. They chatted often, but she didn’t know her name.

Now she fears that the conversation they had last week, when she visited Amstor with her two children, might be her last. “I am really worried about her. She was working exactly on the part of the building where the rocket had landed,” the 50-year-old psychologist said. “It’s very, very painful.”

Kremenchuk was a city in agony on Tuesday, as cranes and bulldozers hauled away the rubble of the shopping mall, where many people may still be buried.

Regional governor Dmytro Lunin told reporters that 36 people were still missing and hope that they would be found alive was fading. Fifty-nine other people were injured in the attack, including 25 who were hospitalized.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Irina Venediktova visited this sleepy, mid-sized city on Tuesday, saying the airstrike on the shopping center was the latest in a long line of war crimes committed by the Russian military since it invaded Ukraine last year. four months.

“I am sure it is a war crime under Ukrainian law,” she said. “And I’m sure it’s a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute. “We see it systematically: bombing Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, hospitals, kindergartens, shopping malls, as we see now. why are they doing [this]? I am sure the Russians know very well that they are only killing civilians… but they are doing it over and over again.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said there were 1,000 people near and in the mall at the time of the attack, called for Russia to be declared a state sponsor of terrorism.

The Russian Defense Ministry denied attacking the mall. In an official statement on Tuesday, he claimed to have hit “an arms depot that stored weapons received from the United States and Europe”, causing an explosion that started the fire in Amstor, which Moscow falsely described as “a shopping mall that does not work”. . ”

Mr. Lunin dismissed Russia’s claim that there was a military target near the Kremenchuk shopping mall. “You can come with me, and I can show you that this is an absolutely civilian object,” he said, standing in front of a table of burnt stuffed animals and a sign reading “bread” that had been recovered from the ruins of the mall. “Here there are no weapons, there is no warehouse.” He said Ukraine knew the name of the Russian pilot who fired the pair of X-22 cruise missiles that hit the mall, adding that his country “would not forgive” what happened.

Workers clean up mall site June 27; a National Guard service member keeps watch nearby; Lyudmila Yorzh, 67, looks in horror near her house across the street.

Monday’s attack came as the G7 was wrapping up a summit in Germany, where the leaders promised to continue sending financial and military aid to Ukraine.

Tuesday marks the opening of a NATO meeting in Spain, where the military alliance will formally announce a major expansion of its high-readiness force to counter the threat of Russian expansionism.

One of the reasons so many people died inside the mall was that many shoppers and staff did not pay attention to an air raid siren that sounded several minutes before the missiles landed.

“Unfortunately, the people who died did so because they ignored the rule to go to the shelters,” Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky said.

“I would like to make a call to state companies, to private companies, to everyone: if you hear an air raid alarm, you must react immediately because it is about the safety of your staff and everyone around you.”

An air-raid siren sounded in Kremenchuk minutes after Monastyrsky spoke. While rescue work was called off and police and firefighters moved away from the mall, only a small minority of those around the disaster site made their way to a nearby bomb shelter.

Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky, center, says ignoring air-raid sirens had deadly consequences in Kremenchuk.

After four months of war, many Ukrainians have stopped taking cover every time they hear the alarm. Local residents said the Amstor mall had actually captured business from its biggest rival in the city, the New Line Mall, which would immediately suspend operations for a siren, occasionally irritating customers minutes away. to complete their purchases, precisely because shoppers knew that Amstor would remain open.

“Even I would go to Amstor because it wouldn’t close during alarms. We would just look at our phones and if we saw that it was an alarm for the whole of Ukraine, we would move on,” said Olga Maslova, a lawyer helping a family search for her daughter who went missing on Tuesday. Ms. Maslova said that she feared the girl was dead, as the police had requested DNA samples from the family.

Amstor’s policy of staying open during air raid sirens made it difficult for those who worked there to leave their posts if they felt unsafe.

Alyona Makarenko, a local psychologist, said her aunt Olga worked alone at a kiosk that sold lottery tickets. She was financially responsible for the tickets and couldn’t leave the kiosk unattended with people in the mall, so Olga only fled after the missiles hit the building on Monday.

Ms Makarenko said her aunt described a nightmarish scene in which she stumbled through a thick cloud of black smoke, past wounded and dying people, some of them missing limbs, as she tried to find her way out. “It is a mystery how she managed to escape. Somehow, blinded by smoke, she found her way out.”

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