February 8, 2023

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Helicopter crash kills Ukrainian minister in strike against warfare

BROVARY, Ukraine — A helicopter carrying senior Ukrainian officials crashed in a fireball in a Kyiv suburb on Wednesday, killing a senior member of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s cabinet and more than a dozen others, and dealing a blow to Ukraine’s warfare.

Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky, a trusted adviser to Mr Zelenskyi who joined the government with him in 2019, died in the crash along with his top deputy. Her death leaves a vacuum at the top of the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for overseeing the country’s police, National Guard and border patrol units.

Mr. Zelensky called the crash, which happened near a kindergarten, a “horrible tragedy” and directly linked the incident to Russia’s invasion of his country. Whether the deadly incident was accidental or not, “every death is the result of war,” he said in an impassioned address delivered via video link to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as he urged Western allies to act more swiftly to support Ukraine.

The cause of the crash was not immediately clear, but there was no initial information that the helicopter had been shot down. Ukrainian investigators have said they are looking into mechanical failure, pilot error or sabotage as possible causes.

The government provided conflicting figures on the death toll throughout the day, but late Wednesday Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said 14 people, including a child, had died. Nine of them were in the helicopter, officials said. The service said 25 people were being treated in hospital, including 11 children.

The crash in Brovary, an eastern suburb of Kyiv, caused chaos and horror in kindergarten. The plane crashed just after 8 a.m. as parents dropped off their children.

Smoke rose from the charred rotors and other flaming debris that were scattered near a playground. Part of the kindergarten was on fire. Mothers tripped over broken glass and called their children’s names.

“There was a lot of panic,” said Anna Mayboroda, 37, who safely retrieved her 3-year-old amid the chaos. “I also started screaming my daughter’s name because I didn’t know where she was.”

The episode was just the latest in a long line of tragedies for a weary country, coming just four days after a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the eastern city of Dnipro, killing 45 people in one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in the war.

Mr Monastyrsky is the most senior government official to have died since the Russian invasion began last February. He and other members of Mr. Zelensky’s Brain Trust had stuck together since the early days of the war. They had survived the initial attack on the capital, Kyiv, and Ukrainian officials said it was Russian assassination plots, as well as multiple trips to the front lines despite fierce fighting.

Mr. Monastyrsky, like Mr. Selensky, took office with a promise to root out the corruption that had long plagued the Ukrainian government, particularly the Interior Ministry’s history of functioning as a separate political fiefdom.

Citing those efforts in a message of condolences to the families of those killed, President Biden said Mr. Monastyrsky and his team are engaged in “vital reform work to strengthen Ukraine’s institutions during this war and in the future.” ”

“The United States stands with the Ukrainian people in the face of this tragedy for as long as it lasts,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, said the government officials on board had traveled to a combat zone.

A witness told Suspilne, Ukraine’s national public broadcaster, that she saw the helicopter burst into flames and spin before it hit the ground. Another witness told Ukrainian media that he heard the helicopter circling before the crash.

At the scene, crumpled, blackened remains of the helicopter, some of its seats still visible, lay in a heap on the sidewalk and street just outside a building, almost unrecognizable save for the rotors leaning against the structure. A partially smashed, burned car jutted out from under the wreckage.

Videos and photos released immediately afterwards showed a long trail of fire that could have been caused by spilled fuel. A photo showed damage on the upper floor of the kindergarten.

Ukraine’s parliament said in a statement that in addition to Monastyrsky, Yevhen Yenin, the first deputy interior minister; and Yurii Lubkovich, State Secretary of the Ministry.

Mr. Yenin had been working in Ukraine’s Attorney General’s Office of International Affairs in 2019 when then-President Donald J. Trump urged Ukrainian officials to investigate the Biden family while withholding military aid from Ukraine. These events led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment by the House of Representatives. Mr. Yenin had opposed complying with the request.

Mr. Monastyrsky’s portfolio gave him authority over a wide range of Ukrainians involved in the conflict with Russia. More than 200,000 soldiers and special police officers in Interior Ministry units fought in the war, although some direct command had passed to the army. Mr Monastyrsky, 42, was also a member of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, the organization that sets security policy for Ukraine.

The ministry has also overseen rescue efforts following rocket and drone strikes in Ukrainian cities, including a desperate attempt to find survivors in the rubble of Saturday’s attack in Dnipro. The ministry has also overseen teams clearing mines from retaken areas, an operation that kills or maims dozens of people every month.

Mr Monastyrsky, who worked as a lawyer before becoming a legislature, was elected to Parliament in 2019 as a member of Mr Zelensky’s political party Servant of the People. He became chairman of the Committee on Law Enforcement and then, in 2021, Home Secretary.

His focus was on overhauling the country’s Soviet law enforcement system to root out corruption and provide better service. But like others in Mr Zelensky’s government, he was pushed into a wartime leadership role after the Russian invasion last February.

“He was a very humble person, very courageous,” Serhiy Leshchenko, an adviser to Mr Zelenskyi’s chief of staff, said of Mr Monastyrsky on Wednesday. “There were no scandals around him. He was a good guy.”

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said via messaging app Telegram that Ihor Klymenko, the head of the national police service, will carry out Mr Monastyrsky’s duties until a new interior minister is appointed.

For Brovary residents, the helicopter death was another grim reminder of the hardships and tragedies of wartime life. The city had already been traumatized by months of Russian missile attacks, and early in the war a Russian ground attack reached the outskirts of the community before Ukrainian forces repulsed it.

On Wednesday, war-weary residents stood around the kindergarten’s cordoned-off compound with charred and broken windows and watched with stony faces. Cell phone videos of the immediate aftermath showed screaming parents.

Ms Mayboroda had dropped off her daughter Vika and was walking home when she heard a “loud, cracking, banging noise”.

As she ran back to her daughter, she heard people screaming that the kindergarten was on fire. She said she thought a Russian missile hit it.

“I saw debris and smoke,” she said through tears. “I saw that scene and I thought maybe my child doesn’t exist anymore.”

Firefighters sealed off the building and held back the crowd of panicked parents. After some time, one called out, “Who is Mother Mayboroda?” and brought her daughter back unharmed.

“They gave me my daughter back completely,” she said. “The most important thing is that my child is alive.”

Yurii Shyvala and Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed to the coverage.