At least 25 people were killed on Sunday when artillery shells hit a market in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine occupied by Russian forces, the pro-Moscow head of the region said, blaming Ukrainian forces for the strike.
If confirmed, the episode would be one of the most serious in recent months involving civilians in an area controlled by Moscow. Ukraine’s military released a statement on Facebook late on Sunday that referred to the market attack, but said it was not responsible. “Donetsk is Ukraine,” the statement by the Tavria military grouping said.
Denis Pushilin, the pro-Moscow leader in the Russia-held part of the region, said on the Telegram messaging app that 20 people had also been wounded at the market, which is in the Kirovsky district and southwest of the city center. The area is roughly eight miles east of the front line in the war.
The pro-Russian mayor of Donetsk, Aleksei Kulemzin, said on Telegram that the market “was attacked on Sunday, when it is busiest,” calling it “horrendous.”
Reuters and The Associated Press carried footage they said they had verified of the immediate aftermath of the attack. It showed bodies in civilian clothes scattered in the snow in an urban street and wounded people being helped by passers-by.
Russia annexed Donetsk and Luhansk as well as two other regions of Ukraine in fall 2022, around seven months after the start of its full-scale invasion. Ukraine and most international governments condemned the annexations as illegal, but according to Moscow, Donetsk is now part of Russia’s sovereign territory and the region’s citizens are Russian.
As a result, Moscow presents any strikes on civilians as an attack across a national boundary that it says undermines Ukraine’s claim to them.
In contrast, the Ukrainian authorities say they confine their attacks to military targets in what they describe as the temporarily occupied territories to avoid hitting their own citizens.
The authorities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions staged referendums in 2022 and said that the results showed that a large majority of residents wanted to join Russia. But the votes were widely denounced as a sham, and it is unclear what percentage of the population supports Moscow. At the same time, human rights groups accuse the pro-Moscow authorities of detaining and torturing people they suspect of opposing Russian rule.
Around 10,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since Russia began its full-scale invasion around two years ago and around 18,000 have been wounded, according to United Nations data. A vast majority of the casualties have come in shelling and other strikes. In one incident in October in a village in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, 52 people were killed when a missile hit a cafe where a wake was being held. Ukraine considers these attacks to be war crimes.
Sunday’s market blast comes at an uncertain time in the Donetsk region. Russia, which has effectively controlled Donetsk city since 2014, fought off a counteroffensive in the region last year that had targeted the city of Bakhmut and that aimed to retake other territory in the south and east of the country.
In the fall, Russia scaled up its own offensive around the cities of Marinka and Avdiivka, which are close to Donetsk’s western suburbs.
The Ukrainian military said in recent weeks that it had all but withdrawn its forces from Marinka, a city that, like Avdiivka, is in ruins after months of shelling.
While this gave a victory to the Kremlin, progress toward its overall goal in eastern Ukraine of seizing control of the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which are together known as the Donbas, has been slow. Military analysts say that despite heavy fighting and substantial casualties on both sides, a Russian breakthrough in the short term looks unlikely.
Nailah Morgan contributed reporting