A strike or series of strikes on a civilian convoy killed over 20 people in southern Ukraine overnight, including children, in one of the most deadly attacks of Russia’s war on its neighbor.
The strikes near the city of Zaporizhzhia, which were swiftly condemned by Ukrainian officials as a Russian war crime, came as the Kremlin prepared to formally annex the area and three other parts of the country that are partially controlled by its military.
Meanwhile, the head of the region’s pro-Moscow governing council blamed the attack on Ukrainian armed forces.
NBC News has been unable to verify the details of the attack. NBC News has contacted the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment but the Russian government has yet to react to the incident.
The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general said on the Telegram messaging app Friday that about 50 people were also injured in the attack on what it called a “humanitarian convoy,” adding that it had begun a criminal investigation.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said on Telegram: “The Russians continue to kill Ukrainians and our Zaporizhzhian land. Terror continues. The killings continue.”
Four out of 16 anti-aircraft S-300 missiles hit the convoy near Zaporizhzhia, which was made up civilians travelling to Russian-occupied areas to pick up relatives, Tymoshenko said. While designed to hit aircraft, the Soviet-era missiles can be used to hit ground targets.
Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, characterized the incident as “horrific news of Russian attacks against civilians.”
She said on Twitter:
“Amid its losses on the battlefield, Russia continues strikes on Ukrainian civilians, a further demonstration that Ukraine’s fight is not only a fight for freedom and sovereignty, but for survival.”
However, pro-Kremlin officials said the convoy was targeted by Ukrainian forces.
“The Kyiv regime is trying to destroy people who wanted to return to the safe territory of Russia. This is the targeted annihilation of the civilian population,” said Evgeny Balitsky, head of the pro-Russian civil-military administration of the Zaporizhzhia region.