The area has been stricken by catastrophic flooding along the Dnipro River after the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam which Kyiv and Moscow have accused each other of deliberately blowing up.
Kherson region’s Ukrainian-appointed governor Oleksander Prokudin said Russian forces were “deliberately trying to disrupt rescue efforts”.
“Today, terrorists opened fire on three boats that were used to rescue 21 people from the flooded (eastern) bank,” Prokudin said on Ukrainian television.
“Almost all of them were elderly and people with limited mobility. Russian soldiers fired at these people in the back.”
He said three people were killed and 10 injured, including two law enforcement officers, during the evacuation from the Russian-controlled parts of the Kherson region to parts controlled by Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky decried the incident and repeated accusations that Russia was responsible for the breach of the dam that flooded towns. Russian forces, he said, were now shelling residents seeking evacuation from submerged areas.
“(They have) cast people deliberately into flooded towns and villages and then shell boats used to try to evacuate them,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address. “Even animals have more morals than the Russian state.”
Prokudin told the television a 74-year-old man who used his body to shield a woman from Russian fire was hit in the back and was injured too seriously for medics to save him.
Pictures posted on a Ukrainian armed forces Telegram channel showed paramedics taking evacuees out of small boats and rushing through knee-deep water to take them to safety – some on stretchers, some in rescuers’ arms.
The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office said 23 people had been injured in the incident. An investigation had been opened.
The incident was first reported by Zelensky’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak who said the boat had been carrying evacuees from flooded areas of occupied territory to the city of Kherson.
“The Russian army attacked a boat with civilians evacuating from the left bank of Kherson region,” Yermak wrote on the Telegram messenger.
Reuters was unable to immediately verify the attack.
The Russian defence ministry failed to respond to a request for comment.
Russia denies targeting civilians. Its February 2022 full-scale invasion has killed thousands, uprooted millions and destroyed cities.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth, Pavel Polityuk and Ron Popeski; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Ros Russell and Marguerita Choy)