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BROVARY, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine’s interior minister and a child were among at least 14 people killed on Wednesday when a helicopter crashed into a nursery and set it ablaze in a suburb of the capital Kyiv.
Separately, Ukraine said its forces again blunted Russian attempts to advance on the front-line city Bakhmut hundreds of miles away in the east, where both sides have taken heavy losses for scant gain in trench warfare since November.
Ukrainian officials said it was too early to determine what caused the helicopter crash. None immediately spoke of any attack by Russia, which invaded Ukraine last February and has been battering Ukrainian cities often far from front lines with missiles almost daily since October.
Dozens of people were injured including children, many suffering burns, after the French-made Super Puma helicopter went down in the fog in Brovary on the eastern outskirts of Kyiv, plummeting into the nursery grounds.
Ukrainian state emergency services said 14 people in total had been killed. Government agencies had earlier published higher death tolls ranging up to 18.
Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi, who was on board the helicopter, was among the dead. He was the most senior Ukrainian official to die since the war began with a Russian invasion in February last year.
Residents described a frantic rescue.
“We saw wounded people, we saw children. There was a lot of fog here, everything was strewn all around. We could hear screams, we ran towards them,” Hlib, a 17-year-old local resident, told Reuters. “We took the children and passed them over the fence, away from the nursery as it was on fire.”
The entire side of the nursery building was charred, with a gaping hole above the entrance, where the helicopter’s rotor blades rested. Nearby, debris was strewn over a muddy playground and the helicopter wreckage lay crumpled by an apartment block.
Several dead men lay in a courtyard, wearing blue uniforms and black boots visible from under foil blankets draped over the bodies.
Vitaliy, 56, said he saw the aircraft fall quickly and crash onto the grounds of the nursery before debris was hurled further into the block of flats. “I thought it was the engine from a rocket or something like that, something very large,” he said.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered an investigation into what he said was a “terrible tragedy.”
“The pain is unspeakable,” he said in a statement.
Monastyrskyi died alongside his first deputy, Yevheniy Yenin, and other ministry officials flying in the helicopter operated by the state emergency service.
Ukraine’s SBU State Security Service said it would consider possible causes including a breach of flight rules, a technical malfunction or intentional destruction.
Western leaders sent condolences and paid tribute to Monastyrskyi, 42, a lawyer and lawmaker. U.S. President Joe Biden voiced condolences to the families of the crash victims and said the United States would honor Monastyrskyi with a continued commitment to preserving Ukraine’s democracy.
President Zelenskyy: Give Us Western Tanks Faster
Since Ukraine wrested back significant territory in the east and south in the second half of 2022, front lines have hardened and Kyiv says new Western weapons, especially heavy battle tanks, are vital for it to regain momentum this year.
In a speech by video link to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Zelenskyy said Western supplies of tanks, and air defense systems to ward off Russia’s missile strike campaign, should come more quickly and be delivered faster than Moscow is able to carry out attacks.
“The supplying of Ukraine with air defense systems must outpace Russia’s next missile attacks,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. “The supplies of Western tanks must outpace another invasion of Russian tanks.”
In the latest announcement of new aid, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand visited Kyiv on Wednesday and pledged 200 Senator armored personnel carriers.
On Friday, Western allies will gather at a U.S. air base in Germany to offer more weapons for Ukraine. Attention is focused in particular on Germany, which has veto power over any decision to send its Leopard tanks, fielded by NATO-allied armies across Europe and widely seen as the most suitable for Ukraine.
Polish President Andrzej Duda told the Davos gathering he was afraid Russia was preparing a new offensive in Ukraine within months and it was therefore crucial to provide additional support to Kyiv with modern tanks and missiles.
Poland and Finland have already said they will send Leopards if Germany approves them. Berlin says a decision will be the first item on the agenda of Boris Pistorius, named Germany’s new defense minister earlier this week.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, visiting an air defense factory in St Petersburg, said Russia’s military industrial might meant “victory is assured, I have no doubt about it.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow saw no prospects of peace talks and there could be no negotiations with Zelenskiy. Russia has said talks are possible only if Ukraine recognizes Moscow’s claims to Ukrainian territory; Kyiv says it will fight until Russia withdraws from all of Ukraine.
In the central city of Dnipro, the civilian death toll from a missile that struck an apartment block on Saturday rose to 45, including six children, among them an 11-month-old boy, Mr. Zelenskyy said on Tuesday.
Moscow denies intentionally targeting civilians. It launched what it calls its special military operation in Ukraine saying Kyiv’s increasing ties with the West posed a security threat.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed and millions forced to flee in what Kyiv and the West call an unprovoked invasion to crush Ukraine’s independence—gained when the Moscow-led Soviet Union broke up in 1991—and seize its land.