SAPORIZHIA, Ukraine (AP) – Russian news reports say that President Vladimir Putin has called the attack on the Kerch Bridge to Crimea an act of terrorism carried out by Ukrainian special forces.
“There is no doubt that it was an act of terrorism aimed at destroying vital civilian infrastructure,” Putin said in video from a meeting on Sunday with Russian investigative committee chairman Alexander Bastrykin.
Bastrykin said he opened a criminal case for an act of terrorism.
Bastrykin said Ukrainian special services and citizens of Russia and other countries took part in the act.
“We have already mapped out the truck’s route,” Russian authorities said, triggering a bomb and an explosion on the bridge, he said. Bastrykin said the truck was in Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, North Ossetia, Krasnodar (a region in southern Russia) and other places.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — The couple huddled under a blanket before sunrise on Sunday when they heard rockets heading again toward their city, which has come under repeated shelling as Russian and Ukrainian forces battled for control of the territory which Moscow illegally annexed.
“There was an explosion, then another,” Mucola Markovich said. Then the apartment on the fourth floor, which he shared with his wife, was gone in a flash, said the 76-year-old, suppressing tears.
Nighttime Russian rocket attacks on the city of Zaporizhia collapsed part of a large apartment building, killing at least a dozen people.
“When it will be rebuilt, I don’t know,” Markovich said. “At the end of my life I’ll be without a home.”
The strikes come as Russia has suffered a series of setbacks nearly eight months after invading Ukraine in a campaign many thought would be short-lived. In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have launched a counter-offensive, retaking areas in the south and east, while Moscow’s decision to call in more troops has sparked protests and an exodus by tens of thousands of Russians.
The latest setback for Moscow was an explosion on Saturday that struck a giant bridge linking Russia to the Crimea peninsula, which Moscow annexed eight years ago. The attack on the Kerch Bridge damaged an important supply route for Kremlin forces and was a blow to Russia’s reputation.
Recent fighting has been concentrated in the regions north of Crimea, including Zaporizhia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj lamented the recent attack in a Telegram post.
“Again Zaporizhia. Again merciless attacks on civilians, targeting residential buildings in the middle of the night,” he wrote. At least 19 people died in Russian rocket attacks on apartment buildings in the city on Thursday.
“From the one who gave this order to everyone who carried out this order: you will respond,” he added.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the attacks on civilians a war crime and called for an international investigation.
The six missiles used in Sunday’s night attack were fired from Russian-held areas of the Zaporizhia region, Ukraine’s Air Force said. The region is one of four claimed by Russia this month, although the eponymous capital remains under Ukrainian control.
Stunned residents watched from behind police tape as emergency responders attempted to reach the upper floors of a building that suffered a direct hit. Where there had once been apartments, a chasm at least 12 meters wide smoldered.
In an adjacent apartment building, rocket fire blew windows and doors out of their frames within a radius of several hundred meters. At least 20 private homes and 50 apartment buildings were damaged, City Council Secretary Anatoliy Kurtev said.
Immediately afterwards, the city council said 17 people were killed, but later revised that number to 12. Regional police reported Sunday afternoon that 13 people were killed and more than 60 injured, including at least 10 children.
Tetyana Lazunko, 73, and her husband Oleksii took shelter in the hallway of their top-floor apartment after hearing air raid sirens. The blast shook the building and sent their belongings flying. Lazunko cried as the couple surveyed the damage to their home of nearly five decades.
“Why are they bombing us? Why?” she said.
About two miles away, in another neighborhood devastated by a missile, three volunteers were digging a shallow grave for a German shepherd who was killed in the strike and whose leg was swept away in the blast.
Russian officials did not immediately comment on the strikes. Defense officials have similarly avoided making direct mention of the blast that damaged the Kremlin’s prized Crimean Bridge.
Some nationalist bloggers have begun to criticize Russian Vladimir Putin for not addressing the bridge attack, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War has noted.
Abbas Gallyamov, an independent Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter, said the Russian president, who formed a committee to investigate the bridge blast on Saturday, did not respond with enough force to satisfy angry war hawks. The attack and response, he said, have “inspired the opposition while demoralizing the loyalists.”
“Because once again they see that they are lying when the authorities say everything is going according to plan and we’re winning, and that demoralizes them,” he said.
Putin personally opened the Kerch Bridge by driving a truck across it in May 2018, as a symbol of Moscow’s claims to Crimea. The bridge, the longest in Europe, is vital to maintaining Russian military operations in southern Ukraine.
No one took responsibility for the damage.
Traffic across the bridge was temporarily halted after the blast, but both cars and trains were running across the bridge again on Sunday. Russia has also resumed car ferry service.
Crimea is a popular vacation spot for Russians. People trying to drive to the bridge and mainland Russia on Sunday encountered hours of traffic jams.
“We were a bit unprepared for such a corner,” said one driver, Kirill Suslov, who was stuck in traffic. “That’s why the mood is a bit somber.”
The Institute for the Study of War said videos of the bridge showed the damage from the blast “is likely to increase friction in Russian logistics for some time” but is not crippling Russia’s ability to equip its troops in Ukraine.
Hours after the blast, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Air Force Chief General Sergei Surovikin would now command all Russian troops in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military on Sunday said fierce clashes had broken out around the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have recently claimed some territorial gains. The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not concede any loss of territory, but said that “the most tense situation” was observed around these two cities.
And in the devastated Ukrainian city of Lyman, which was recently recaptured after months of Russian occupation, authorities were searching for the bodies of other civilians. Mark Tkachenko of the Kramatorsk District Police said Lyman has become a “humanitarian crisis” that could include other grim discoveries such as mass graves.
Schreck reported from Kyiv.
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