By Herbert Villarraga and Tom Balmforth
DNIPRO, Ukraine/KYIV (Reuters) - The death toll from a Russian missile strike in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro rose to 40 on Monday, with dozens more missing, making it the deadliest civilian incident of Moscow's three-month campaign of firing missiles at cities far from the front.
Ukraine says the mass civilian deaths, which it describes as terrorism, demonstrate why it needs more weapons to defeat Russian forces 11 months after they invaded. Russia denies intentionally targeting civilians.
German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht resigned on Monday as her government came under rising pressure to let allies send Ukraine German heavy tanks, at the start of what looks like a pivotal week for Western plans to further arm Kyiv.
Officials acknowledged little hope of finding anyone else alive in the rubble of Saturday's attack in the central city of Dnipro, but President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the rescue operation would go on "as long as there is even the slightest chance to save lives".
"Dozens of people were rescued from the rubble, including six children. We are fighting for every person!" Zelenskiy said in an overnight televised address.
Zelenskiy, speaking later in his nightly video address, said the Dnipro attack underscored the need to speed up decisions on arms supplies and "coordinate all the efforts of the coalition defending Ukraine and freedom." He expects key decisions by Ukraine's allies when they meet in Germany later this week, he added.
Dnipro was in mourning on Monday.
A serviceman in uniform laid flowers and sobbed, clutching his head in grief next to an impromptu shrine to the dead at a bus stop across the street from a gaping hole where the apartment block had stood.
The missile flattened all nine storeys in a section of the long concrete housing unit. Rescue workers shovelled through debris more than 48 hours after the attack.
"We all live in buildings like this one and we all imagine what if it happened to us. It is awful," said Polina, 28, a resident of the neighbourhood.
Russia, which since October has been conducting large scale strikes on Ukrainian cities mainly targeting power generation infrastructure, said it was not to blame for the destruction in Dnipro as it was caused by Ukrainian air defences. Kyiv says the apartment building was hit by a Russian ship-to-ship missile, a type that Ukraine does not have the capability to shoot down.
At least 40 people were killed in the attack with 30 still unaccounted for, city official Gennadiy Korban said. He said 75 people were wounded, including 14 children.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the Dnipro strike., a U.N. spokesperson said. "Attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure violate international humanitarian law. They must end immediately," the spokesperson said.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed since Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, and about a quarter of the population have fled their homes.
Ukrainian forces recaptured swathes of eastern and southern territory during the second half of 2022. But front lines have largely been frozen in place for the past two months, despite intense fighting in which both sides have taken heavy losses.
Ukraine says a key to breaking the stalemate would be Western battle tanks and armoured vehicles as these would give its forces the capability to break through Russian lines.
Western countries have so far stopped short of sending tanks, loath to provoke the Kremlin which claims Ukraine is fighting on behalf of a broader Western plot to destroy Russia.
The tank taboo was finally broken at the weekend by Britain pledging a first squadron of Challengers to Kyiv. On Monday it confirmed the supply of 14 Challenger 2 tanks and other hardware including hundreds more armoured vehicles and advanced air defence missiles to "to accelerate Ukrainian success".
In announcing the added military aid, British defence minister Ben Wallace urged Germany to permit the supply of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, stressing that this could unlock support from other nations and Berlin would not be acting alone.
The far more commonly used Leopards are widely seen as the most likely workhorses of a future Ukrainian armoured force, though that would require permits which Berlin has yet to grant.
With U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin due to host allies at an air base in Germany on Friday to discuss further aid for Ukraine, the German government said Chancellor Olaf Scholz had accepted the defence minister's resignation.
Lambrecht had been criticised of late for tone deafness after an upbeat New Year's message filmed in front of fireworks, in which she spoke of the opportunities she'd had to meet "interesting, great people" as a result of the Ukraine war.
Germany's allies - especially eastern European states that were once Soviet satellites under Moscow's thumb - have been increasingly direct in their demands that Berlin provide Leopards, or at least grant export permits to let them do so.
"I call for decisive actions by the German government," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Monday during a visit to Berlin, to applause from a group of lawmakers gathered in the city's Jewish Museum for a gala.
"The battle for freedom and our future is raging as we speak," Morawiecki said. "Tanks must not be left in storehouses, but placed in their hands."
Russia calls the war a "special military operation" triggered by Kyiv's increasingly close ties with the West, which Moscow says imperil its security. Ukraine and Western allies call it an unprovoked invasion to erase the independence of a fellow ex-Soviet republic that Moscow sees as a fake country.
The Kremlin has accused the West of escalating the conflict, although Moscow also says the supply of tanks will not affect the course of the war. Britain's Challenger tanks "will burn like the rest", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.
Moscow claimed last week to have captured the eastern Ukrainian salt mining town of Soledar, in what would be its biggest battlefield success since last August. Ukraine says it still has some presence in the town and fighting continues.
Ukraine's Western allies say the fight for Soledar, whose pre-war population was barely 10,000, is unlikely to have much wider impact, except insofar as the huge losses there could sap manpower both sides need for decisive battles that lie ahead.
(Reporting by Herbert Villarraga and Tom Balmforth; Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly and Dan Peleschuk, and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Peter Graff and Mark Heinrich; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Alex Richardson, Grant McCool and Diane Craft)