Ukraine’s interior minister was among at least 16 people killed on Wednesday when a helicopter crashed in a suburb of the capital Kyiv, setting fire to a nursery packed with children.
According to the latest official toll, nine people on board and at least seven on the ground were killed when the French-made Super Puma helicopter went down in Brovary on the eastern outskirts of Kyiv.
At least three children were among the dead. Dozens of other people were hurt, including many children, many suffering burns. The entire side of the nursery building was charred.
“We saw wounded people, we saw children. There was a lot of fog here, everything was strewn all around. We could hear screams, we ran towards them,” Glib, a 17-year-old local resident, told Reuters at the scene.
“We took the children and passed them over the fence, away from the nursery as it was on fire, especially the second floor,” he said.
Debris was scattered over a muddy playground. In a courtyard lay several dead interior ministry staff, their blue uniforms and black boots visible from under foil blankets draped over the bodies. A large chunk of the aircraft had landed on a car, destroying it.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called said the full casualty toll was still being determined and he had ordered an investigation into the “terrible tragedy”.
“The pain is unspeakable,” he said in a statement.
National police chief Ihor Klymenko confirmed that Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi was killed alongside his first deputy, Yevheniy Yenin, and other ministry officials flying in the helicopter operated by the state emergency service.
Officials said it was too early to determine what caused the crash. None immediately spoke of an attack by Russia, which invaded Ukraine last February.
The SBU State Security Service said it would consider several possible causes, including a breach of flight rules, a technical malfunction or intentional destruction.
“Unfortunately, the sky does not forgive mistakes, as pilots say, but it’s really too early to talk about the causes,” air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat said, adding it could take at least several weeks to investigate.
International dignitaries sent condolences and paid tribute to Monastyrskyi, 42, a lawyer and lawmaker appointed in 2021 to run the ministry responsible for the police. He was the most senior Ukrainian official to die since the war began.
Separately, Ukraine reported more fighting overnight in the east, where both sides have taken huge losses for little gain in intense trench warfare over the last two months.
Ukrainian forces repelled attacks in the eastern city of Bakhmut and the village of Klishchiivka just south of it, the Ukrainian military said. Russia has focused on Bakhmut in recent weeks, claiming last week to have taken the mining town of Soledar on its northern outskirts.
After significant Ukrainian gains in the second half of 2022, the front lines have hardened over the last two months. Kyiv says it hopes new Western weapons will spur renewed momentum this year, especially heavy tanks which would give its troops mobility and protection to push through Russian lines.
Western allies will be gathering on Friday at a U.S. air base in Germany to pledge more weapons for Ukraine. Attention is focused in particular on Germany, which has veto power over any decision to send its Leopard tanks, fielded by armies across Europe and widely seen as the most suitable for Ukraine.
Berlin says a decision on the tanks will be the first item on the agenda of Boris Pistorius, named Germany’s new defence minister this week.
Britain, which broke the Western taboo on sending main battle tanks over the weekend by promising a squadron of its Challengers, has called on Germany to approve the Leopards. Poland and Finland have already said they would be ready to send Leopards if Germany allows it.
Lithuania’s foreign minister, attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said he expected a decision to send tanks. “I’m confident because this is what I’m hearing here, talking with other leaders. There is momentum,” Gabrielius Landsbergis told Reuters in an interview.
Zelenskiy was due to address Davos later on Monday by video link.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday Moscow saw no prospects of peace talks and there could be no negotiations with Zelenskiy. Russia has said talks are possible only if Ukraine recognises Moscow’s claims to Ukrainian territory; Kyiv says it will fight until Russia withdraws from all of Ukraine.
In the central city of Dnipro, the civilian death toll from a missile that struck an apartment block on Saturday rose to 45, including six children, among them an 11-month-old boy, Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.
Ukrainian authorities called off the search for survivors in Dnipro on Tuesday. Around 20 other people are still missing in the rubble after the attack, the deadliest for civilians of a three-month-old Russian missile bombardment campaign against cities far from the front.
Moscow denies intentionally targeting civilians. It launched what it calls its special military operation in Ukraine last year saying Kyiv’s increasing ties with the West posed a security threat.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions forced to flee homes in what Kyiv and the West call an unprovoked invasion to subdue Ukraine and seize its land.