Ukraine has begun a criminal investigation after a group of soldiers attending an “award ceremony” not far from the front line in the southern Zaporizhia region were killed in a Russian missile attack.
At least 20 soldiers were reported to have been killed in the incident on Friday in Zarichne, according to local media. Zaporizhia Governor Yuriy Malashko said nine civilians were also injured in the attack on the village, which is about 16km (10 miles) from the front line.
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“This is a tragedy that could have been avoided,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a speech late on Sunday.
“A criminal investigation has been registered into the tragedy,” he added, saying the intention was to uncover the “complete truth” about what happened to ensure such incidents were not repeated.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces confirmed on Saturday that several soldiers from its 128th Mountain Assault Brigade had been killed in a missile strike the day before, but did not provide casualty figures.
“[Russia] fired an Iskander-M missile at the personnel of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade, killing the soldiers and causing injuries of varying severity to local residents,” the army said.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Rustem Umerov said in a social media statement the same day that he had ordered a “full investigation” into what had happened.
Zelenskyy said Umerov had briefed him on the measures taken to clarify the circumstances of the attack, who was specifically involved and what orders were given.
The New York Times, citing a military official who was not named because they were not authorised to speak to the media, said that any investigation was likely to focus on how Russia had found out about the event and been enabled to attack it. By holding the ceremony in the open, senior brigade members appeared to have breached military regulations, the official added.
One Ukrainian soldier said on social media that 22 people from the brigade had been killed, criticising commanders for having held the ceremony.
The event was organised to commemorate Artillery Day, which took place on Friday.
“Everyone is writing that ‘Heroes died’. Although it is more appropriate to write ‘Heroes became victims’,” soldier Ivan Savytskyy said.
“They became victims of military rudimentary traditionalism in its worst form,” he said.
In its daily updates on battlefield developments, the Russian defence ministry said only that Russian forces had “inflicted fire” on a unit of Ukraine’s assault brigade in Zaporizhia, killing as many as 30 soldiers.
Russia and Ukraine have often underestimated their own military casualties in the 20-month-long war and exaggerated the losses they claim to have inflicted on each other.
Ukraine’s western Zakarpattia region, where the 128th assault brigade is based, will observe a three-day mourning period from Monday, local Governor Viktor Mykyta said.
“Our heroes are alive as long as the memory of them and their deeds lives on,” he said.
Amid little apparent movement along the nearly 1,000km (620 mile) front line, Zelenskyy has rejected suggestions that the conflict is at a deadlock, urging allies to continue their support even as the Israel-Gaza war draws increasing attention.
In his statement on Sunday, Zelenskyy sought to reassure Ukrainians about the conflict.
“When we go through weeks like this, filled with pain and difficult discussions, it is important for people to understand that what weighs on their hearts is seen, and the necessary changes will be made,” the president said.
“This applies to many things, from negligence that can occur to the Soviet legacy and the terrible bureaucracy that prevents Ukraine and many in our defence forces from realising their potential correctly and effectively.”
Zelenskyy promised that the investigation into the attack would provide “honest answers” for the soldiers’ families as well as the wider Ukrainian society.