A French journalist was killed after an armored evacuation vehicle he was traveling in was hit by Russian shrapnel in the eastern Ukrainian town of Sievierodonetsk, Ukrainian authorities said and French.
The BFMTV news channel said it was “tremendously saddened” to announce the death of Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, 32, who had worked for it for six years and was on his second tour of the conflict, adding that the journalist and cameraman was killed on the road to Lyssytchansk.
“Our reporter was covering the ongoing war. He was the victim of shrapnel while following a humanitarian operation in an armored vehicle on Monday,” the news channel said.
“He was accompanied by his colleague, Maxime Brandstaetter, slightly injured during this strike, and their fixer, Oksana Leuta, who remained unharmed. Leclerc-Imhoff had been reporting from the easternmost Ukrainian town, which has come under intense Russian attack.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the journalist “was in Ukraine to show the reality of war. On board a humanitarian bus, alongside civilians forced to flee to escape Russian bombs, he was fatally shot. I share the pain of the family, relatives and colleagues of Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, to whom I send my condolences.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said: “A little over a month ago I gave an interview to this same TV channel. It was my first interview in the French media during the total war. My sincere condolences to Frédéric’s colleagues and family. He became the 32nd media representative killed after February 24.
For BFMTV, this drama “recalls the dangers incurred by all journalists who, for more than three months, report this conflict at the risk of their lives”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international media advocacy group, said more than a dozen journalists had been killed while covering the conflict in Ukraine.
France’s new foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, has called for an investigation into Leclerc-Imhoff’s death. “France demands that an investigation be carried out as soon as possible and transparently into the circumstances of this tragedy,” she said in a statement.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said on Telegram that the armored evacuation vehicle came under “enemy fire” as it went to pick up 10 people in the area. There was no immediate comment from Russian authorities, who have repeatedly denied targeting civilians in Ukraine.
“Grenade shrapnel pierced the armor of the car…a fatal neck wound was received by an accredited French journalist who was reporting on the evacuation. A police officer on patrol was saved by a helmet,” Haidai said.
Andrei Marotchko, spokesman for the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic, told Russian news agency Tass that it was unlikely that Leclerc-Imhoff was a journalist and could have delivered arms to Ukrainian forces.
“He is not presented only as a journalist, even Ukrainian media say he was a volunteer,” Marochko said. “We do not exclude that he transported weapons and ammunition to the [Ukrainian] army positions. That’s why he met such a sad fate. I wouldn’t call him a journalist because all his activities were probably of another nature.
“He could be described as a foreign mercenary. We can say with certainty that he was an accomplice of the far-right Ukrainian forces because we have observed the kind of help that these volunteers provide. They deliver weapons and ammunition capable of killing civilians.
Efforts to evacuate civilians from the area were suspended after the death, which occurred as Russian tanks and troops began advancing towards Sievierodonetsk – the largest city in Donbass still held by Ukraine.
Witnesses said Russian tanks were advancing towards the center of the city one blast at a time, razing anything left in their path after intense shelling which Ukrainian authorities say led to conditions on the ground reminiscent of Mariupol .
“They [the Russian army] using the same tactics over and over,” Haidai said. “They bomb for several hours – for three, four, five hours – in a row, then attack. Those who attack die. Then, the bombardments and the attacks follow one another, and so on until they break through somewhere.
Witnesses said the town was shelled “200 times an hour” as Russian forces tried to cut through lines of reinforcements and encircle its remaining defenders.
The city’s mayor, Oleksandr Striuk, confirmed in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that Russian troops had “advanced a few blocks towards the city center”. He said Ukrainian forces were trying to repel the Russians in street fighting and the 12,000 to 13,000 civilians who remained in the city were sheltering from the relentless shelling in basements and bunkers.
The Battle of Sievierodonetsk, which lies on the eastern bank of the Siverskyi Donets, about 90 miles south of the Russian border, is under the spotlight as Russia slowly but steadily wins in the industrial Donbass, which includes the republics self-proclaimed from Luhansk and Donetsk.