Ukrainian officials on Tuesday accused the Kremlin’s forces of targeting rescue workers by hitting residential buildings with two consecutive missiles — the first one to draw crews to the scene and the second one to wound or kill them.
The strikes Monday evening in the downtown district of the city of Pokrovsk killed nine people and wounded more than 80 others, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address. According to Ukrainian authorities, one of those killed was an emergency official, and most of those wounded were police officers, emergency workers and soldiers who rushed to assist residents.
The Russian missiles slammed into the center of Pokrovsk in the eastern Donetsk region, which is partially occupied by Russia. Emergency crews were still removing rubble on Tuesday. The Iskander missiles, which have an advanced guidance system that increases their accuracy, hit within 40 minutes of each other, according to Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Since the start of the war, Russia has used artillery and missiles to hit targets and then struck the exact same spot around 30 minutes later, often hitting emergency teams responding to the first blast. The tactic is called a “double tap” in military jargon. Russians used the same method in Syria’s civil war.
“All of (the police) were there because they were needed, putting their efforts into rescuing people after the first strike,” Ivan Vyhivskyi, chief of Ukraine’s National Police, said Tuesday. “They knew that under the rubble were the injured — they needed to react, to dig, to retrieve, to save. And the enemy deliberately struck the second time.”
Russia’s Ministry of Defense claimed it hit a Ukrainian army command post in Pokrovsk. Neither side’s claims could be independently verified.
Among those injured was Volodymyr Nikulin, a police officer originally from the now Russian-occupied port city of Mariupol.
Arriving at the scene after the first missile strike, Nikulin was wounded in the second strike when shrapnel pierced his left lung and left hand.
“Today is not my happy day because Russian criminals committed another awful crime in Pokrovsk,” he said in a video he sent to The Associated Press from a hospital ward.
In the video, he is seen lying on a bed shirtless, with dried blood on his side and covering his left hand. He moves with pain to show his wounds.
Pointing his camera to show other wounded security forces in the ward, he says: “Look, these are Ukrainian heroes who helped (injured) people.”
He told the National Police in a video that he feared a second strike but went to help anyway.
There were so many injured at the hospital that Nikulin was still waiting for surgery on Tuesday morning. He was later transported to a hospital in Dnipro, where he was to have the shrapnel removed.
Nikulin had already witnessed some of the war’s horrors. He helped an AP team escape after Russian troops that besieged Mariupol entered the downtown area and searched for them.
He was featured in the award-winning documentary “20 Days in Mariupol,” a joint project between The Associated Press and PBS “Frontline” about the earliest phase of the invasion of Mariupol.
In a statement, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, Denise Brown, described the latest attack as “absolutely ruthless” and said it was “a serious breach” of international law and violated “any principle of humanity.”
Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion in February 2022, 78 employees of Ukraine’s State Emergency Service have been killed and 280 have been wounded while responding to Russian missile strikes, according to agency spokesperson Col. Oleksandr Khorunzhyi.
Ukrainian officials say rescuers are protected by international conventions as they are providing humanitarian assistance and are not engaged in combat operations.
The head of the Pokrovsk city administration, Serhii Dobriak, described the attacks as “a typical Russian scenario,” with 30 to 40 minutes between missiles.
“When rescuers come to save people’s lives, another rocket arrives. And the number of casualties increases,” he said in a video comment to local media.
Kyrylenko, the regional governor, said that 12 multistory buildings were damaged in Pokrovsk, as well as a hotel, a pharmacy, two stores and two cafes.
The roof of one building was partially demolished, and rubble filled the sidewalk outside. Across the road, a children’s playground was wrecked.
Russian missiles, drones and artillery have repeatedly struck civilian areas in the war. The Kremlin says its forces target only military assets and claims other damage is caused by debris from Ukrainian air defenses.
Meanwhile, an overnight attack on the town of Kruhliakivka, in the northeastern Kharkiv region, killed three people and injured nine others, Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said.
Russia also dropped four guided bombs on a village near Kupiansk, in the Kharkiv region, killing two civilians, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
Rescuers later came under fire, and two of them were wounded, it said.
Also on Tuesday, Russian-installed authorities of the Donetsk region accused Kyiv’s forces of shelling the region’s namesake capital and killing three people. The Moscow-appointed leader of the Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin, said Ukrainian shelling of the Russian-held city of Donetsk also wounded 11.