A series of strikes on a civilian convoy killed more than 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 came as Russian missiles, drones and rockets pummeled the country, were swiftly condemned by Ukrainian officials as a Russian war crime. They also came as the Kremlin prepared to formally annex the area and three other parts of the country that are partially controlled by its military.
NBC News, which has been unable to verify the details of the attack, has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry for comment, but the Russian government has yet to react to the incident. The head of the region’s pro-Moscow governing council blamed the attack on Ukrainian armed forces.
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.
"These people were going to their relatives in the occupied territories, [bringing] humanitarian aid," Oleksandr Starukh, governor of the local region, said on his Telegram channel.
"They were supposed to take our fellow citizens and move them to the free part of Ukraine."
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said on Telegram: "The Russians continue to kill Ukrainians and our Zaporizhzhian land. Terror continues."
Four out of 16 anti-aircraft S-300 missiles hit the convoy near Zaporizhzhia, which was made up civilians traveling to Russian-occupied areas to pick up relatives, he added. 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.
A reporter with the Reuters news agency saw bodies lying on the ground or still in vehicles at the city’s sprawling Orekhovo car market. A blast had left a crater in the ground near two lines of vehicles full of blankets and suitcases, the reporter said.
As details of the Zaporizhzhia attack began to emerge, Russian President Vladimir Putin was preparing to formally announce the area's annexation in a speech to Moscow's political elite.
But at the same time, Ukraine's counteroffensive continues to retake territory and inflict morale-draining victories on Russia's armies. On Friday, Ukrainian troops had surrounded the eastern city of Lyman in Donetsk, another of the regions being annexed.
Serhii Cherevaty, the spokesman of the Eastern Group of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told local media: "Measures are underway to complete the encirclement of Russian troops in the Lyman area, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are keeping almost all logistical routes under fire control."
As some analysts predicted, the strong opposition to Russian occupation has resulted in increased Russian bombardment of Ukrainian-held towns and cities.
One person was killed and five injured as Dnipro was hit by Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, the regional governor, Valentyn Reznichenko, said.
Donetsk, Kharkiv and the northern region of Sumy were all struck by artillery and mortar fire in the last 24 hours, Ukrainian officials said.
"The occupiers fired 16 rockets in one morning in Zaporizhzhia and the district alone!" Zelenskyy wrote on his Telegram channel. "Only terrorists could have done this, they should have no place in the civilized world."
The Ukrainian air force said it had shot down five out of seven Shahed-136 drones — sometimes called “kamikaze drones” — over the Mykolaiv and Odessa regions, Ukraine’s government said.
Zelenskyy will hold an urgent meeting Friday of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.
Darya Herasymchuk, adviser to the president on children's rights and rehabilitation, said Friday that 3,781 children have been left without parental care since the start of the war.