Ukraine missile toll rises to 40 as Russia denies attack
The toll from a devastating Russian strike on Dnipro rose to 40 on Monday, as more bodies were pulled from the debris of one of Russia's deadliest attacks since its invasion.
Residents gathered to watch as cranes removed collapsing sections of the Soviet-style residential building that was ripped open by the strike in central Ukraine on Saturday.
The emergency services gave the new toll specifying that three children were among those dead and that 34 people were still unaccounted for.
The Kremlin claimed to reporters its forces were not responsible and pointed to an unsubstantiated theory circulating on social media that Ukrainian air defence systems had caused the damage.
"The Russian armed forces do not strike residential buildings or social infrastructure. They strike military targets," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky said late Sunday that search operations would go on as long as necessary and condemned Russia's "cowardly silence" over the attack.
EU presidency holder Sweden condemned "in the strongest terms" the attack, with Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson telling reporters that "intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes".
- 'Defensive' Belarus drills -
The rising cost of the strike came as Russia and its close ally Belarus announced the beginning of new joint military drills.
Belarus, which has been a key ally to Russia throughout the conflict, allowed Moscow's forces to launch their invasion from Belarusian territory last February.
Its defence ministry said the air force exercises would involve joint "tactical" flights and that every airfield in Belarus would be involved.
"The exercise is purely defensive in nature," Pavel Muraveyko, first deputy state secretary of Belarus's Security Council, said in remarks carried Sunday by the defence ministry.
The Institute for the Study of War, based in the United States, said in an analytical note Monday that the risk of a new offensive from Belarus was "low" and "the risk of Belarusian direct involvement was very low".
Meanwhile, UN atomic watchdog chief Rafael Grossi was expected in Ukraine on Monday to deploy observer missions at nuclear power plants across the country that have been a key concern throughout Russia's invasion.
"I'm proud to lead this mission to Ukraine, where we're deploying in all of the country's NPPs (nuclear power plants) to provide assistance in nuclear safety and security," he said on Twitter.
Ukraine in recent weeks has been pressing Western backers to supply its forces with advanced tanks, in particular the German-designed Leopard model.
- Observer teams at nuclear plants -
German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht resigned on Monday after months of heavy criticism over Berlin's stuttering response to the war in Ukraine.
Britain this weekend pledged 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, which would make it the first Western country to supply the heavy tanks Kyiv has been calling for.
Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesperson, told reporters Monday that fighting in Ukraine would continue with or without the deliveries.
"These tanks are burning and will burn," he said.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with German media on Sunday that "recent pledges for heavy warfare equipment are important -- and I expect more in the near future".
Separately on Monday, Ukraine officials said that Russian forces had continued shelling the southern city of Kherson, which was recaptured by Kyiv's forces late last year.
In Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, the Moscow-appointed official responsible for the military city Sevastopol said Russian forces had downed seven drones over the last 24 hours.
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