Ukraine: Russian missile kills civilians in shopping center

(Poltava, June 30, 2022) – Russian forces launched a missile that hit a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, central Ukraine, on June 27, 2022. The attack killed at least 18 civilians, local authorities said, and injured dozens others, Human Rights Watch said today. As of June 29, 36 people were still missing, as rescue efforts continued.

An official from the Russian Ministry of Defense claims that the mall was closed at the time of the attack. He also claimed that the fire that damaged the mall had spread from the detonation of Western-supplied munitions caused by the strike by Russian forces at an industrial complex adjacent to the mall. Both statements are obviously false.

“The Russian missile that directly hit an open and busy civilian mall on June 27 caused devastating civilian casualties,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The incident should be investigated as a potential war crime, and if the Russian authorities do not, the International Criminal Court and other investigative bodies should.”

The missile hit the mall around 4 p.m., destroying it and damaging several vehicles in its parking lot. A second missile, a few minutes later, hit the north side of the Kremenchuk Road Vehicle Plant, a large industrial complex whose boundaries are less than 40 meters behind the mall, separated by a cinder block wall. The second impact hit 450 meters north of the first, leaving a crater about 16 meters wide and 5 meters deep. Four CCTV cameras recording different angles over a nearby park captured the impact of the second missile. CCTV timestamps show second missile hit at 3:59 p.m. In CCTV video, the plume of smoke from the mall strike is visible. A Russian Defense Ministry official claimed that Ukrainian authorities were stockpiling weapons from the United States and European countries at the industrial complex. interior minister of ukraine said there were no military targets within five kilometers of the mall.

Based on investigations at the site on June 28 and 29, Human Rights Watch could not identify any evidence that the industrial complex was storing munitions.

Contrary to Russian claims, although some stores closed after Feb. 24, the mall remained open, witnesses, staff and shoppers said. Human Rights Watch spoke to 15 people, including people hospitalized with injuries, doctors, store workers, other witnesses, and local officials.

Four people separately said that around 4 p.m. they heard two explosions within minutes of each other. Elena Guseva, 55, who works at a grocery kiosk opposite the mall, said she heard the airstrike siren around 4 p.m., ‘prayed it was a false alarm’, walked out, then heard a very loud explosion: “I screamed and jumped. I felt a sudden pain in my chest and stomach. And I saw a huge black smoke above the mall.

Pictures, recorded from a CCTV camera overlooking the industrial complex behind the mall, captured the moment the first missile hit the mall. The timestamp of the footage reads 3:51:54 p.m. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy publicly shared the footage, the exact location of which was first geotagged by investigative journalism group Bellingcat and verified by Human Rights Watch by matching landmarks in the video with satellite images.

Human Rights Watch cannot at this time verify or refute whether the industrial site has ever been used for military purposes. However, Human Rights Watch observed its perimeter, and factory management allowed researchers access to the compound. The plant’s deputy director, Viktor Shybko, said the plant does not house any military vehicles, equipment or personnel and only produces machinery for the production of concrete and asphalt.

Researchers were allowed unhindered access to the facility, including several warehouses, where they saw large stationary machinery and old metal parts, some covered in dust. They found no evidence of military vehicles, weapons or ammunition. Since the Russian invasion in February, the factory has operated only part-time due to interrupted supply lines. On June 27, the working day ended at 3:30 p.m. and there were about 50 people left when the missile hit. Site security personnel are unmilitarized and equipped only with radios and flashlights.

Deputy Mayor of Kremenchuk Olha Usanova and Oksana Korlyakova, Head of intensive care clinic, Kremenchutskaya, said only 5 of the 18 killed had been identified because the other bodies were so badly burned that they made visual identification impossible. After the attack, 57 people sought medical assistance from the clinic, of whom 25 – 15 men and 10 women – required hospitalization. One died shortly after arriving and five were in serious condition on June 28.

Officials said most of those hospitalized suffered traumatic brain damage and other injuries from primary and secondary blast fragmentation. Doctors sent a badly burned person to a specialist hospital.

A man hospitalized with head trauma and other injuries said he found himself in the mall, lost consciousness and woke up under a concrete slab. He said he heard his wife, 43, scream nearby. She was also pinned under concrete debris with her arm broken in three places: “As we were tripping [of the mall]she had to hold her arm with her other arm, and we could see the bone sticking out under the skin.

Mykolay, 39, who worked for 10 years as a consultant at an electronics store in the center, was also hospitalized. He said he heard an explosion followed by a “deafening crushing sound”. He only remembers being led outside by his colleagues, some of them injured and bloody: “Part of the wall had completely disappeared, and we just walked through the opening to get out.

Petro, 41, an employee of another electronics store, sat outside the center with a colleague, Oleksandr, waiting for the air raid siren to end: “I saw a yellow flash in front of my eyes , and a wave threw several meters, hitting wooden pallets before losing consciousness. When Petro regained consciousness, he found that he had multiple cuts and blood gushing from his right arm. He was hospitalized with a concussion and multiple bruises to his back and head, his hand was visibly swollen and his back covered in bruises, his colleague was hospitalized with broken legs.

A computer worker who was a kilometer from the mall at the time of the strike drove to the center when he heard the explosion. He saw numerous emergency vehicles and people being transported with blood on their arms and heads. He said there was a lot of smoke and the smell of burning plastic was so strong he couldn’t breathe and had to leave after about 20 minutes.

Rescuers continue to search the site for survivors. Human Rights Watch spoke with a family who said they called the morgue and all hospitals in town looking for their daughter, a mall employee, to no avail.

Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite images collected before and after the attack. A low-resolution image taken June 27 at 11:18 a.m. shows no damage to the mall or factory. A high-resolution satellite image the following morning confirms that the attack hit at least two separate areas, reducing the mall to rubble and severely affecting surrounding areas. Several cars were destroyed and part of the wall surrounding the nearby factory was damaged. Debris is spreading in various directions.

The industrial complex crater was caused by the second strike. It hit the largest production warehouse in the complex and the greenhouse next to it. The satellite image shows the crater and damage to several surrounding buildings. The roof and the north facade of one of the buildings are badly damaged and six buildings are destroyed.

Ukrainian Air Force the command identified the weapons used by Russia in strikes as KH-22 (X-22 in Cyrillic) cruise missiles, fired from Russian aircraft. At the mall site, Ukrainian authorities presented remains that they said had been recovered from the strike. Human Rights Watch has not independently verified the weapons used in either strike. The impact crater in the factory and the blast damage at the mall are consistent with the detonation of warheads weighing nearly 1,000 kilograms with large explosive payloads.

If the Russian forces were targeting the industrial complex, they must or should have been aware of the significant presence of civilians near their target. They had an obligation to distinguish these civilians and the civilian shopping center from any potential military objective and to take all feasible precautions to minimize loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian property.

This includes not conducting a strike when the foreseeable risk of civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects clearly outweighs any concrete military advantage anticipated. Intentionally launching an attack where the loss of civilian life or injury and damage to civilian objects would be manifestly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated is a war crime.

The use of wide-area explosive weapons in populated areas heightens fears of unlawful, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. These weapons can have a large kill radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple rounds simultaneously. This includes large high-explosive warhead ammunition, as used in the June 27 attack. The use of these weapons should be avoided in populated areas.

“Civilians in Kremenchuk who suffered such heavy casualties in the June 27 strike deserve justice,” Gorbunova said. “There must be a thorough investigation and those responsible must be held accountable.”

Edwin S. Wolfe