By ADAM SCHRECK and VASILISA STEPANENKO – Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An explosion on Saturday caused the partial collapse of a bridge connecting the Crimean peninsula to Russia, damaging an important supply artery for the Kremlin’s faltering war effort in southern Ukraine. Ukraine and striking an imposing symbol of Russian power in the region.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the explosion, which killed three people. The speaker of the Russian-backed Crimean regional parliament blamed Ukraine, but Moscow did not blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to strike the bridge, and some hailed the destruction on Saturday. But Kyiv refrained from claiming responsibility.
The explosion, which Russian authorities say was caused by a truck bomb, risked a sharp escalation in Russia’s eight-month war, with some Russian lawmakers calling on President Vladimir Putin to declare an ‘anti-terrorist operation’, abandoning the term “special military operation”. which had minimized the scope of the fighting for ordinary Russians.
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Putin on Saturday evening signed a decree strengthening the security of the bridge and energy infrastructure between Crimea and Russia, and tasked Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, with the effort.
Hours after the explosion, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Air Force Chief General Sergei Surovikin would now command all Russian troops in Ukraine. Surovikin, who this summer was put in charge of troops in southern Ukraine, had led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a bombardment that destroyed much of Aleppo.
Moscow, however, continues to suffer battlefield casualties.
On Saturday, a Kremlin-backed official in Ukraine’s Kherson region announced a partial evacuation of civilians from the southern province, one of four illegally annexed by Moscow last week. Kirill Stremousov told Russian state agency RIA Novosti that young children and elderly people could be relocated because Kherson was “preparing for a difficult time”.
The 19-kilometre (12-mile) long Kerch Bridge over a strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov is a symbol of Moscow’s claims to Crimea and a vital link to the peninsula, which Russia has annexed to Ukraine in 2014. The $3.6 billion bridge, the longest in Europe, is vital to supporting Russian military operations in southern Ukraine. Putin himself presided over the opening of the bridge in 2018.
The attack on her “will have a new effort to undermine Russian morale, (and) give an extra boost to Ukraine’s,” said James Nixey of Chatham House, a London think tank. “In theory, the Russians can rebuild it, but they can’t defend it by losing a war.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a video address, indirectly acknowledged the attack on the bridge but did not address its cause.
“Today was not a bad day and mostly sunny in the territory of our state,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was cloudy in Crimea. Although it was also hot.
Zelenskyy said Ukraine wants a future “without occupiers. Throughout our territory, especially in the Crimea.
Zelenskyy also said Ukrainian forces advanced or held the line to the east and south, but acknowledged “very, very difficult, very tough fighting” around the town of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have claimed recent gains.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said a truck bomb set fire to seven wagons carrying fuel, leading to “the partial collapse of two sections of the bridge”. A couple in a vehicle on the bridge were killed, the Russian investigative commission said. He did not specify who the third victim was.
All vehicles crossing the bridge are supposed to undergo state-of-the-art checks for explosives. The truck that exploded belonged to a resident of Krasnodar region in southern Russia, the investigative committee said, adding that the man’s home had been raided and experts were examining the route of the truck. truck.
Rail and car traffic on the bridge has been temporarily suspended. Car traffic resumed on Saturday afternoon on one of the two links that remained intact, the flow alternating in each direction, said the head of Crimea supported by Russia, Sergei Aksyonov.
Rail traffic was slowly picking up. Two passenger trains left the Crimean cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol and headed for the bridge on Saturday evening. Passenger ferry connections between Crimea and the Russian mainland were restarted on Sunday.
As Russia seized areas north of Crimea at the start of its invasion of Ukraine and built a land corridor there along the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is launching a counter-offensive to recover this territory.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its troops in the south are receiving needed supplies through this corridor and by sea.
Russian war bloggers responded to the bridge attack with fury, urging Moscow to retaliate by hitting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. Putin ordered the creation of a government panel to deal with the emergency. Gennady Zyuganov, head of the Russian Communist Party, said the “terrorist attack” should serve as a wake-up call. “The special operation must be transformed into an anti-terrorist operation,” he said.
Leonid Slutsky, head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, said “consequences will be imminent” if Ukraine was responsible. And Sergei Mironov, leader of the Just Russia faction, said Russia should respond by attacking key Ukrainian infrastructure.
Such statements may announce a decision by Putin to declare an anti-terrorist operation.
The parliamentary leader of Zelenskyy’s party called the explosion a consequence of Moscow’s takeover of Crimea.
“Russian illegal construction is starting to collapse and catch fire. The reason is simple: if you build something explosive, it will explode sooner or later,” said David Arakhamia of the Servant of the People party.
Ukraine’s postal service said it would issue stamps commemorating the explosion, as it did after the sinking of the Moskva, a Russian flagship cruiser, by a Ukrainian strike.
Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Oleksiy Danilov tweeted a video showing the Kerch Bridge on fire and Marilyn Monroe singing her song “Happy Birthday Mr. President”. Putin turned 70 on Friday.
In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said “the Kyiv regime’s reaction to the destruction of civilian infrastructure shows its terrorist nature”.
The Crimean Peninsula is a popular destination for Russian tourists and is home to a Russian naval base. A Russian tourist association estimated that 50,000 tourists were in Crimea on Saturday.
Elsewhere, the UN’s nuclear watchdog said Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant had lost its last external power source following renewed bombardment and now relied on backup diesel generators .
Ukrainian authorities were also just beginning to sift through the rubble of the devastated town of Lyman in eastern Ukraine, assessing the humanitarian toll and possible war crimes after a months-long Russian occupation.
“Some people died in their homes, others died on the streets, and the bodies are now being sent to experts for examination,” said Mark Tkachenko of the Kramatorsk district police.
Explosions also rocked the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Saturday morning, sending plumes of smoke into the sky and triggering secondary explosions. Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of using surface-to-air missiles in two mostly residential neighborhoods.
The apartment of Tetiana Samoilenko, a resident of Kharkiv, caught fire during the attack. She was in the kitchen when the explosion hit, sending glass flying.
“Now I have no roof over my head. Now I don’t know what to do next,” the 80-year-old said.
Stepanenko reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Francisco Seco contributed from Kharkiv and Justin Spike from Lyman, Ukraine.
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