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Ukrainian interior minister, top officials killed in helicopter crash

Investigators in Ukraine have begun a probe into the cause of a helicopter crash that killed at least 14 people, including Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian Interior Minister Denis Monastyrsky and other top ministry officials were killed Wednesday morning when their government helicopter crashed near a kindergarten just outside Kyiv, in what appeared to be an accident.

Fourteen people were killed, including one child, and 25 people were injured, including 11 children, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine said at 3:45 p.m. local time, adding that search and rescue operations had been completed.

Nine people — six officials from the Interior Ministry and three crew members — were aboard the helicopter, which was operated by the State Emergency Service. All died in the crash. The helicopter, an EC-225 Super Puma, is designed for long-range passenger flights.

Witnesses at the scene described a two-story building engulfed in flames and then smoke at the crash site in Brovary, a small city adjacent to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Trees at the playground next to the kindergarten were on fire, they said.

“The whole block was completely covered in dust and smoke and you couldn’t see anything — no kindergarten, no buildings, nothing,” said Vasyl Gryshchenko, 79. “From the balcony, I smelled a rubber or plastic burning smell.”

Despite Russia’s ongoing invasion and ceaseless missile strikes on Ukraine, there were no initial signs of foul play. An air force spokesman, Yuriy Ignat, said the crash would be investigated. But early signs pointed to a tragic accident in a country at war, where civilian casualties because of Russian military attacks occur every day. There was heavy fog in Kyiv on Wednesday morning, which could have affected flight conditions.

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In a statement, the State Emergency Service said the helicopter “was repeatedly involved in the performance of tasks for the transportation of personnel to the places of emergency situations.”

“The ship’s crew was prepared to perform tasks under difficult conditions,” the service said, and “had the required number of hours of flight.”

Investigators from Ukraine’s main internal security service, the SBU, were at the crash site on Wednesday afternoon. In a statement, the SBU said “several versions of the tragedy are being considered,” including a violation of flight rules, a technical malfunction and intentional sabotage.

Although Ukrainian airspace is closed to commercial and private aircraft, Monastyrsky was on an official trip to a “hot spot” on the front line, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office. Also on board the emergency services helicopter, and killed in the crash, were the first deputy minister, Yevhen Yenin, and state secretary Yuri Lubkovych, Ukrainian officials said.

Helicopters are seen regularly flying around the Kyiv region and are strictly grounded only when an air raid alert for possible missile strikes is activated.

In a statement, President Volodymyr Zelensky called the crash a “terrible tragedy” and described the officials killed as “true patriots.”

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Monastyrsky, 42, had been Ukraine’s interior minister since 2021, overseeing law enforcement bodies that have taken on an outsize role since the start of Russia’s invasion last February. These include the national guard, which has units fighting on the front lines, such as the Azov Regiment, which led the defense of Mariupol for months, as well as the national police, which is investigating Russian war crimes.

Monastyrsky is the most senior Ukrainian official to die since the Russia’s invasion began. One of his aides, Anton Gerashchenko, posted a photo of Monastyrsky meeting with Zelensky on Tuesday night, briefing him in the presidential office.

Monastyrsky, a lawyer who was elected to parliament in 2019 as a member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, rose to the top Interior Ministry post after the surprise resignation of Arsen Avakov in July 2021. Avakov had been Ukraine’s longest-serving minister at the time and one of the country’s most powerful figures, holding the post through four administrations.

Just six months after becoming interior minister, Monastyrsky was thrust into a wartime role. The border guards, also under his purview, were the first to face the giant Russian force crossing into Ukraine early on Feb. 24. Then, Monastyrsky had to oversee a large-scale demining effort across the country that is still ongoing.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on the Telegram messaging app that Ihor Klymenko, the head of the national police service, would carry out Monastyrsky’s duties until a new interior minister is named.

At the crash site, people who live nearby offered tea and cookies to rescue workers and law enforcement. Two women smoked as they nervously waited for news. One of the women lost her brother’s wife and child in the crash. The other was waiting for news on her baby cousin, who was also inside the school. Minutes later, an emergency services worker approached her and said the girl was dead.

Dmytro Serbyn had just dropped off his child at a different school nearby when he heard the helicopter’s whir, initially confusing it for a Russian drone. Instead, he saw the helicopter crash into the kindergarten. He then ran toward it along with two police officers who were nearby. He said they smashed windows and doors from the outside, and the men started pulling screaming children from the burning building.

By that point, many parents had run over to the kindergarten in a panic, calling out the names of the children. Serbyn said one man was looking for his daughter, Paulina, and did not recognize her at first because her face was covered in blood.

“There was so much smoke,” Serbyn said. “And then I was helping the firefighters collect bodies. And parts of bodies.”

Zelensky, speaking by video link to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday, said Russia’s war was to blame for the crash even if the helicopter was not downed in combat.

“This is not an accident because it has been due to war,” Zelensky said. “A war has many dimensions, not just on the battlefield. There are no accidents at wartime. … Every individual, every death, is a result of the war.”

Speaking remotely from Kyiv, Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan 18. (Video: Reuters)

Morgunov reported from Brovary. Zoeann Murphy in Brovary, Kostiantyn Khudov in Kyiv and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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