Ukraine accuses local man of directing missile strike that killed 11 at popular pizza restaurant

Ukrainian authorities on Wednesday arrested a man they accused of helping Russia direct a missile strike that killed at least 11 people, including three teenagers, at a popular pizza restaurant in eastern Ukraine.

The Tuesday evening attack on Kramatorsk wounded 61 other people, Ukraine's National Police said. It was the latest bombardment of a Ukrainian city, a tactic Russia has used heavily in the 16-month-old war.

The strike, and others across Ukraine late Tuesday and early Wednesday, indicated that the Kremlin is not easing its aerial onslaught, despite political and military turmoil at home after a short-lived armed uprising in Russia last weekend.

Search and rescue efforts continue after a Russian missile attack hits Ria restaurant in Kramatorsk, Ukraine on June 27, 2023. (Photo by Wojciech Grzedzinski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

There has been no apparent military push by Ukraine to exploit that turmoil, though the government has been tight-lipped about recent battlefield developments as it seeks to gain momentum in its recently launched counteroffensive.

The Kremlin reeled from the weekend mutiny led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner private army of prison recruits and other mercenaries. Wagner has played a key combat role for Russia in Ukraine. The rebellion posed the most serious threat so far to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power.

READ MORE: Putin blasts mercenaries, says aborted rebellion played into enemy's hands

Prigozhin went into exile in neighboring Belarus on Tuesday, according to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, after Russia said he wouldn’t face charges for the revolt. Prigozhin’s whereabouts could not be independently confirmed.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Wednesday that the unrest had weakened Putin, though he added that it’s "hard to tell" to what extent.

"He’s clearly losing the war in (Ukraine)," Biden said of Putin before departing Washington for Chicago. "He’s losing the war at home and he has become a bit of a pariah around the world."

Two sisters, both age 14, died in the Kramatorsk attack, the city council's educational department said. "Russian missiles stopped the beating of the hearts of two angels," it said in a Telegram post.

Wounded civilians are seen in shock after a Russian missile attack hits Ria restaurant in Kramatorsk, Ukraine on June 27, 2023. (Photo by Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The other dead teenager was 17, according to Prosecutor General Andrii Kostin.

The attack also damaged 18 multistory buildings, 65 houses, five schools, two kindergartens, a shopping center, an administrative building and a recreational building, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

Rescuers are still searching the rubble for bodies and more survivors in a city where last year, about six weeks after the start of war, 52 civilians were killed in a Russian missile strike on a train station.

READ MORE: Russia drops charges against Prigozhin, others who took part in rebellion

Officials initially blamed the strike in Kramatorsk on an S-300 missile, a surface-to-air weapon that Russia’s forces have repurposed for loosely targeted strikes on cities, but the National Police later said Iskander short-range ballistic missiles were used.

Kramatorsk is a front-line city that houses the Ukrainian army’s regional headquarters. The pizza restaurant was frequented by journalists, aid workers and soldiers, as well as local residents.

Search and rescue efforts continue after a Russian missile attack hits Ria restaurant in Kramatorsk, Ukraine on June 27, 2023. (Photo by Wojciech Grzedzinski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Security Service of Ukraine said the man it detained, an employee of a gas transportation company, is suspected of filming the restaurant for the Russians and informing them about its popularity.

It provided no evidence for its claim. Russia has insisted during the war that it doesn’t aim at civilian targets, although its air strikes have killed many civilians. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov repeated that claim on Wednesday.

Kramatorsk is in Donetsk, one of four Ukrainian provinces that Russia annexed last September but does not fully control. Russia has also occupied Crimea since 2015.

Ukrainian-held parts of the partially occupied provinces have been hit especially hard by Russian bombardment, and are a central point of dispute in the war. The Kremlin demands that Kyiv recognize the annexations, while Kyiv has ruled out any talks until Russian troops pull back from all occupied territories.

Russia has stepped up its air campaign in Ukraine while fighting continues along the front line. Russian forces on Tuesday and overnight also shelled 16 settlements in the southern Zaporizhzhia region, the Ukrainian presidential office reported.

It said a 77-year-old civilian was killed in the front-line town of Orikhiv, and that Russian shelling wounded three people in a nearby village recently retaken by Kyiv. Also, a Russian supersonic cruise missile slammed into a cluster of holiday homes in central Ukraine, sparking a fire which injured a child, the presidential office said.

In other developments:

Pope Francis’ peace envoy, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, was to meet with an aide to President Putin, Yury Ushakov, in Moscow on Wednesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the talks would include "possible ways of political-diplomatic settlement."

Francis dispatched Zuppi, a veteran of the Catholic Church’s peace initiatives, to Moscow in hopes of helping spur peace negotiations after his visit to Kyiv earlier this month. At the Vatican on Wednesday, Francis again appealed for an end to the war, praying that Ukrainians "may soon find peace: There is so much suffering in Ukraine, let us not forget that."