KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine's interior minister died Wednesday in a helicopter crash near the capital that killed more than a dozen other people, including children, authorities said.
Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi, who oversaw Ukraine's police and emergency services, is the most senior official to die since Russia invaded nearly 11 months ago. His death, along with two others from his ministry, was the second calamity in four days for Ukraine, after a Russian missile strike on an apartment building killed dozens of civilians.
There was no immediate word on whether the morning crash, near a kindergarten and reportedly in heavy fog, was an accident or related to the war, but Ukrainian authorities immediately opened an investigation. No fighting has been reported recently in the Kyiv area.
Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said that 17 people were killed in the crash, including nine people who were aboard the helicopter and four children who presumably were on the ground. It said 25 people have been injured, including 11 children. Early official reports gave slightly different casualty figures, including a higher death toll.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the crash as “a terrible tragedy” on a “black morning.”
“The pain is unspeakable,” he wrote on Telegram.
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman called the 42-year-old Monastyrskyi “a leading light in supporting the Ukrainian people during Putin’s illegal invasion." She said she was "struck by his determination, optimism and patriotism.”
Monastyrskyi's deputy Yevhen Yenin and State Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Yurii Lubkovych were also among those killed, according to the chief of Ukraine’s National Police. Senior officials routinely travel by helicopter during the conflict, often low and at high speed.
Nine of those killed were aboard the chopper when it crashed in Brovary, an eastern suburb of the Ukrainian capital, police chief Ihor Klymenko said. The others who died were apparently on the ground.
At the scene of the crash, which was near a kindergarten, at least four bodies on the ground were covered by reflective sheets. Officials cleared chunks of charred, mangled wreckage, lying against an apartment building and in a playground. Some walls were partly demolished and blackened.
“It is too early to talk about the reasons,” for the crash, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s Air Forces, Yurii Ihnat, told a television channel. He said an investigation could take some time.
The helicopter was a Super Puma supplied by France, he added.
A French defense official said the helicopter was sold to Ukraine in 2019 and was not part of the equipment that France has provided since the start of the war. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be named, according to ministry policy.
The Security Service of Ukraine is conducting an investigation, prosecutor general Andriy Kostin said. “For now, we are considering all possible versions of the helicopter crash accident,” he said on Telegram.
In other developments Wednesday:
— President Vladimir Putin defended his invasion again Wednesday — offering a variation on arguments he has used previously. The Russian leader told a gathering of veterans that Moscow’s actions were intended to stop a “war” that has raged for years in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian forces.
“All what we are doing today as part of the special military operation is an attempt to stop this war. This is the meaning of our operation — protecting people who live on those territories,” he said.
Ukraine and its Western allies have rejected Russia's justifications, saying Kyiv posed no threat to Moscow and the invasion was unprovoked.
— Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated that the goals behind the invasion are “determined by Russia’s core legitimate interests."
“There must be no military infrastructure in Ukraine that poses a direct threat to our country,” Lavrov said at his annual news conference. He claimed that the goal of Ukraine’s Western allies is to use the conflict to exhaust Russia.
— Fighting is continuing in eastern Ukraine around the city of Bakhmut and the nearby salt mining town of Soledar, governor of the Donetsk region Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
A total of 14 cities and villages were shelled in the partially occupied Donetsk region over the previous 24 hours, Ukraine’s presidential office said. Two civilians were wounded.
It added that Russian forces also shelled residential areas of the southern city of Kherson, which was retaken by Kyiv’s military in November. Four people were wounded.
Wednesday's helicopter crash comes at a particularly dark period in the war for Ukraine, just days after the Russian strike on the apartment building in southeastern Ukraine killed 45 people, including six children — the deadliest attack on civilians since the spring.
“Another very sad day today — new losses,” said Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, dabbing teary eyes and pinching her nose as she responded to the news while at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The forum held 15 seconds of silence after opening the session to honor the Ukrainian officials killed.
“Haven’t had time to recover from one tragedy, there is already another one,” said the deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office Kyrylo Tymoshenko.
Associated Press writers Andrew Meldrum in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.