In what a UN official termed a “horrifying” attack, a Russian strike killed at least 51 people gathering for a wake in an eastern Ukrainian hamlet on Thursday.
Rescuers pulling a corpse from the rubble and numerous burnt victims in civilian clothes laying side by side, as well as others in white body bags, were seen by AFP journalists on the scene in the aftermath.
The mourning were in a cafe, and there were additional victims in a business in the same building in the village of 330 inhabitants in Kharkiv’s northeastern district.
Volodymyr Mukhovaty, 70, said he lost his son in the attack and was still hunting for his wife and daughter-in-law, who were at the burial reception.
“My son was just found without a head, without arms, without legs, without anything. They recognised him from his documents,” he told AFP.
He had “little hope” of seeing his daughter-in-law or wife again but was watching rescue workers from a distance in case they were found.
“I lived with my wife for 48 years,” he told AFP. “I will not last long alone.”
There were piles of body parts next to two children’s swings nearby while under floodlights, rescuers were still digging through the rubble of what was left of the cafe.
According to Interior Minister Igor Klymenko, a six-year-old child was among the casualties, and 60 people were attending a “memorial service for a deceased fellow villager.”
Groza lies more than 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the frontline town of Kupiansk, in a region where Russian soldiers are attempting to retake land lost to Ukrainian troops last year.
Klymenko said initial evidence showed an Iskander missile had been used.
“The search and rescue operation is ongoing,” Klymenko said. “There may still be people under the rubble.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was attending a European summit in Spain, condemned the attack on social media.
Zelensky posted an image of a woman kneeling over the body of someone apparently killed in the strike, with other corpses around her.
He called the strike “completely deliberate” and said it was a “brutal Russian crime”.
Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said Ukraine needed more air defence “to protect our country from terror”.
“We are discussing this with partners,” he wrote on social media, repeating Ukrainian calls for more protection against the daily barrages of drone and missile strikes.
Denise Brown, Ukraine coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), also condemned the alleged Russian strike.
Brown said she was “appalled”, adding that the images from the scene of the strike were “absolutely horrifying”.
“Intentionally directing an attack against civilians or civilian objects is a war crime,” she said in a statement.
According to a regional assembly official quoted by Ukrainian media, it was the single most lethal attack since Russia’s invasion began on February 24, 2022.
Oleg Sinegubov, the governor of the Kharkiv area, said the strike began around 1:15 p.m. (1015 GMT).
Following an increase in Russian strikes, regional officials have ordered forced evacuations in the area.
Russian forces conquered large swaths of the Kharkiv region in the early days of their invasion, which began in February last year.
Ukrainian forces recaptured much of the border territory during a lightning offensive late last year, but the regional capital, also called Kharkiv, still comes to regular shelling.
Zelensky’s advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said the attack had “no military logic”.
“This is a reminder to anyone who is willing to smile and shake hands with war criminal Putin at international conferences,” he said, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“A reminder to all those who want to sell something to Russia and return to bloody business as usual,” he said, adding: “Putin’s Russia is a true evil”.