KYIV – Russia launched a deadly missile strike on a Ukrainian military brigade in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region over the weekend, killing an unspecified number of soldiers, Ukrainian officials said. Unconfirmed Ukrainian media reports and a member of the brigade said that dozens may have been killed and injured.
Russian forces hit troops of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade with an Iskander-M missile on Friday, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a social media post late Saturday.
“Servicemen were killed, and local residents were also injured of various degrees of severity,” the ministry said, without providing the number of dead, or the circumstances or precise location of the attack.
A member of the 128th brigade, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the missile struck the brigade as it gathered in the village of Zarychne close to the front line for a medals ceremony in honor of the country’s Artillery and Missile Forces Day.
“I can’t give the exact number of casualties,” the serviceman said. “What we heard in the first few minutes after the strike was 22 people. But later, one of the platoon commanders who was at the ceremony said it was more than 30 people.”
The Washington Post could not independently verify the reports of the strike. The brigade member also said that the brigade’s chief of artillery and “many officers” were killed. “All the artillery units, the best crews, gathered,” he said.
He also blamed his unit’s leadership for the lapse in security. “It’s a screw-up by the command, because they should have said, ‘All right, let’s give out awards to people by units and let’s gather in the trenches,’” he said. “In short, we just relaxed, and it didn’t take a long time to smash us.”
“The ‘Eye of Sauron’ is constantly watching you, and anything more than three people is a fat target,” he added, referring to the all-seeing evil ruler in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov in a Facebook post Saturday evening called what had happened “a tragedy,” without giving further details, and said he was ordering a “full investigation” into the incident.
Unverified photos on social media showed cars burning and bodies lying along a dirt road in the village in the aftermath of the attack.
Viktor Mykyta, the governor of the southwestern Transcarpathia region where the 128th Brigade is usually based, announced a three-day mourning period starting on Monday, during which flags would be flown at half-mast, a moment of silence would be observed in the morning and “religious services will be held in churches of various denominations in the region.”
“I advise you to visit sanctuaries and pray for our defenders,” Mykyta wrote on social media on Saturday evening.
Transcarpathia is a small, largely rural mountainous region with a population of just over a million that borders Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. The 128th Brigade is headquartered in Mukachevo, the region’s second largest city.
The attack on the brigade follows a strike last month on a funeral for a Ukrainian soldier in the eastern town of Hroza, in which 52 people were killed. The majority of those who died were civilians, including the dead soldier’s widow and relatives; it was not clear whether Russian forces were expecting military personnel to be present. Many villagers said they suspect a Russian sympathizer living among them informed the Russian military about the planned gathering.
Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s military head, said in an interview published this week that modern military equipment allows both sides in the Russian conflict to easily identify concentrations of opponent forces.
“The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy is doing and they see everything we are doing,” he told the Economist.