HROZA, Ukraine (AP) — A Russian rocket blast turned a village cafe and store in eastern Ukraine into rubble Thursday, killing at least 51 civilians in one of the deadliest attacks in the war in months, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other top officials in Kyiv.
Rescuers searched for survivors in the remains of the only cafe in the village of Hroza. Body parts were strewn across a nearby children’s playground that was severely damaged by the strike. Cellphones were collected and put in a courtyard nearby, waiting to be claimed. Occasionally, one of them rang, lighting up a shattered screen.
Around 60 people, including children, were attending a wake at the cafe when the missile hit, Ukrainian officials said.
Zelenskyy, attending a summit of about 50 European leaders in Spain to drum up support from Ukraine’s allies, denounced the strike as a “demonstrably brutal Russian crime” and “a completely deliberate act of terrorism.”
According to preliminary information from Kyiv, the village was hit by an Iskander missile.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the strike “horrifying” and said it demonstrated why the United States is doing everything it can “to help the brave people of Ukraine to fight for their freedom, to fight for their democracy.”
Hroza, which had a population of about 500 before the war, is in the northeastern Kharkiv region and was seized by Russia early in the war before being recaptured by Ukraine in September 2022. It’s only 30 kilometers (19 miles) west of Kupiansk, a key focus of the Russian military effort. Zelenskyy visited the area Tuesday to meet with troops and inspect equipment supplied by the West.
Dmytro Nechvolot told The Associated Press he was looking for his 60-year-old father, who attended the wake for a soldier from Hroza who died last year but who was reburied after being identified by DNA. Nechvolot kept walking up to his father’s red car, which was still parked nearby, while waiting for confirmation that he had been killed.
“I have lost a man I looked up to, a beloved father, and an unforgettable grandfather,” he said.
On Thursday, Zelenskyy was at a summit of the European Political Community in Granada, Spain, where he asked for more Western support, saying that “Russian terror must be stopped.”
“Russia needs this and similar terrorist attacks for only one thing: to make its genocidal aggression the new norm for the whole world,” he said in a statement posted on his Telegram channel. “Now we are talking with European leaders, in particular, about strengthening our air defense, strengthening our soldiers, giving our country protection from terror. And we will respond to the terrorists.”
“The key for us, especially before winter, is to strengthen air defense, and there is already a basis for new agreements with partners,” he told the group, which was formed in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Heeding Zelenskyy’s cry, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Germany will supply Ukraine with another Patriot missile air defense system. He expects Russia will again target crucial infrastructure and cities across Ukraine in the winter months.
“This is what is now needed the most,“ Scholz said after meeting Zelenskyy, according to the German news agency dpa.
Last winter, Russia targeted Ukraine’s energy system and other vital infrastructure in a steady barrage of missile and drone attacks, triggering continuous power outages across the country. Ukraine’s power system has shown a high degree of resilience and flexibility, but there have been concerns that Russia will again ramp up its strikes on power facilities as winter draws near.
Zelenskyy noted that the Granada summit will also focus on “joint work for global food security and protection of freedom of navigation” in the Black Sea, where the Russian military has targeted Ukrainian ports after Moscow’s withdrawal from a U.N.-sponsored grain deal designed to ensure safe grain exports from the invaded country’s ports.
The U.K. Foreign Office cited intelligence suggesting that Russia may lay sea mines in the approaches to Ukrainian ports to target civilian shipping and blame it on Ukraine.
“Russia almost certainly wants to avoid openly sinking civilian ships, instead falsely laying blame on Ukraine for any attacks against civilian vessels in the Black Sea,” it said, adding that the U.K. was working with Ukraine to help improve the safety of shipping.
Speaking in Granada, Zelenskyy emphasized the need to preserve European unity in the face of Russian disinformation and to remain strong amid what he described as a “political storm” in the United States.
Asked if he was worried that support for Ukraine could falter in the U.S. Congress, the Ukrainian president stressed that his visit to Washington last month made him confident of strong backing by both the Biden administration and Congress.
Zelenskyy called for more air defense systems, more artillery weapons and shells, and more long-range missiles and drones for Ukrainian soldiers, as well as other forms of support and security guarantees to help protect Europe from potential aggression by Moscow.
Earlier Thursday, Russia targeted Ukraine’s southern regions with drones. Ukraine’s air force said the country’s air defenses intercepted 24 out of 29 Iranian-made drones that Russia launched at the Odesa, Mykolaiv and Kirovohrad regions.
Andriy Raykovych, head of the Kirovohrad regional administration, said an infrastructure facility in the region was struck and emergency services were deployed to extinguish a fire, but there were no casualties.
In other Russian attacks in the past day, two civilians were killed by shelling in the southern city of Kherson and one died after a strike on the city of Krasnohorivka in the eastern Donetsk region. At least eight people were wounded, according to Ukraine’s presidential office.
A Russian strike on a hospital in the city of Beryslav in the Kherson region ravaged the building and wounded two medical workers, according to the regional administration chief, Oleksandr Prokudin.
Ukraine, in turn, has struck back at Russia with regular drone attacks across the border.
In Russia’s Kursk region that borders Ukraine, Gov. Roman Starovoit said Ukrainian drone attacks resulted in power cuts in several areas. He also said Ukrainian forces fired artillery at the border town of Rylsk, wounding a resident and damaging several houses.
Associated Press writers Dasha Litvinova and Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, Emma Burrows in London and Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed.