Ukrainian shelling kills 21 Russian civilians, Russia says, a day after Moscow launched major aerial assault

By Radina Gigova, Darya Tarasova, Mariya Knight, Maria Kostenko, Tim Lister and Xiaofei Xu, CNN

CNN  — 

At least 21 people, including three children, were killed and 110 others wounded in a Ukrainian attack on the Russian city of Belgorod on Saturday, Russian authorities said, a day after Moscow launched a huge and deadly aerial assault of its own against its neighbor.

The deaths were the result of a “massive” attack on downtown Belgorod, according to Russian state news agency TASS, quoting the emergencies ministry.

“This crime will not go unpunished,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.

“The Kiev regime … is trying to divert attention from the defeats on the front lines and to provoke us into taking similar actions.”

Saturday’s shelling comes after Russia launched overnight Thursday into Friday its biggest air attack on Ukraine since the start of its full-scale invasion, resulting in at least 40 deaths and more than 150 injuries.

Ukrainian attacks on Russian regions near the border have continued almost daily for over a year, sometimes resulting in civilian casualties, but this would be one of the single deadliest incidents yet reported. CNN cannot independently confirm the death toll.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been briefed about the attack in Belgorod, the Kremlin said, ordering a health ministry team and emergencies ministry rescuers to be sent to the city to help those affected.

A view shows a damaged car following what was said to be Ukrainian forces' shelling in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, in Belgorod, Russia, in this picture released December 30, 2023.

After calling for a last minute emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council over the attack on Belgorod, Russia faced backlash from several council members.

Russia’s ambassador Vasily Nebenzya described the attack as “a deliberate act of terrorism planned against civilians” and claimed that a sports complex where children were present and an ice ring with kids were hit.

Ukraine was quick to respond as its representative, Serhii Dvornyk, told the Council that “the only way to stop human suffering” is “to stop the war itself” – calling on Russia to cease its aggression and withdraw its troops.

His comments were echoed by Ukraine’s western allies who put the blame squarely on Russia and its leader.

“Putin should be honest with his own people about the true and mounting cost of this war,” John Kelley, who represented the United States at the Council, said and added “we are here again today because the Kremlin refuses to halt its illegal invasion.”

The Security Council meeting took place hours after a Russian missile attack in Kharkiv in which at least 26 people were injured, according to Ukrainian officials.

Russian authorities said Belgorod was also shelled Friday night with one civilian killed, the region’s governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said. Four others, including a child, were injured, he added.

On Saturday, a child also died as a result of Ukrainian shelling in Russia’s Bryansk region, the region’s Governor Aleksandr Bogomaz said.

Russia’s defense ministry said it destroyed 32 Ukrainian UAVs flying over the Russian regions of Bryansk, Oryol, Mursk, and Moscow, according to a Telegram post by the defense ministry Saturday.

Ukraine has not publicly commented on the incidents and rarely claims responsibility for attacks on its neighbor.

Rescuers comb through Kyiv rubble

The toll from the Russian strikes on Ukraine – which saw an unprecedented number of drones and missiles fired at targets across the country – meanwhile continued to mount.

A 77-year-old man died from his injuries in the city of Odesa, Oleh Kiper, the head of the Odesa region military administration said, bringing the total killed to 40.

The man was critically injured when a missile hit a three-storey building in the center of Odesa, Kiper added.

Schools, a maternity hospital, shopping arcades and blocks of flats were among the buildings hit in Friday’s barrage, prompting widespread international condemnation and renewing calls for more military aid.

The toll in the capital Kyiv rose to at least 16, after the bodies of more civilians were recovered from the rubble of a warehouse, Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko said Saturday. All the deaths in Kyiv occurred at the warehouse.

“The attack on the capital city on December 29 was the largest in terms of civilian casualties” since the start of the full-scale invasion, he said.

“Rescuers are working and will continue to clear the rubble until tomorrow,” Klitschko said. “January 1 will be declared a Day of Mourning in Kyiv.”

During the wave of strikes, Poland’s military authorities claimed that an “unidentified airbourne object” briefly entered its airspace.

Russia said it would not give any any explanation “until concrete evidence is presented.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on X that NATO remained vigilant over the incident.

CNN’s Victoria Butenko, Svitlana Vlasova and Christian Edwards contributed to this report.

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