A Russian rocket fire that destroyed apartment buildings and houses in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia killed at least a dozen people, Ukrainian officials said on Sunday, as Moscow scrambles to push through the takeover of illegally annexed territory.
The blasts, which brought down at least one high-rise apartment building and smashed the windows of others, came from six rockets fired in Russian-held areas of the Zaporizhia region, Ukraine’s Air Force said. The region is one of four claimed by Russia this month, but the region’s capital remains under Ukrainian control.
Immediately after the strikes, the city council said 17 people had been killed, but later corrected the number to 12. Regional police reported on Sunday afternoon that 13 people were killed and more than 60 injured, including at least 10 children.
The multiple strikes came after an explosion on Saturday that caused the partial collapse of a bridge connecting the Crimean peninsula to Russia. The attack on the Kerch Bridge damaged a key supply route for the Kremlin’s stalled war effort in Ukraine and a towering symbol of Russian power in the region.
Stunned residents watched from behind police tape as emergency responders attempted to reach the upper floors of a building that suffered a direct hit. The attack collapsed several stories, leaving a smoldering chasm at least 40 feet wide where apartments had previously stood. A few hours later, the top floors also collapsed.
In an adjacent apartment building, the barrage blew windows and doors out of their frames for several hundred yards. In all, at least 20 private homes and 50 apartment buildings were damaged and at least 40 people were hospitalized, City Council Secretary Anatoliy Kurtev said.
Mucola Markovich, 76, from Zaporizhzhia said he and his wife were hiding under a blanket when they heard rockets and the bang of explosions. “There was an explosion, then another,” he said. Then her fourth-floor apartment vanished in a flash, Markovich said, fighting back tears.
“I don’t know when it will be rebuilt,” he said. “At the end of my life I’ll be without a home.”
Russian officials did not immediately comment on the strikes. After Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Zaporizhia region last week, Russia has repeatedly bombed the city of the same name. At least 19 people died in Russian rocket attacks on apartment buildings in the city on Thursday.
“Saporizhia again. Again merciless attacks on civilians, targeting residential buildings, in the middle of the night,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote in a Telegram post.
“Absolute meanness. Absolute evil. … From the one who gave that order, to everyone who carried out that order: They will answer. They must. Before the law and the people,” he added.
Tetyana Lazunko, 73, and her husband Oleksii took shelter in the hallway of their top-floor apartment after hearing air-raid sirens and then an explosion that shook the building and blew their belongings through the air.
Lazunko cried inconsolably as the couple surveyed the damage to their home since 1974 and wondered why an area with no military infrastructure in sight was being attacked.
“Why are they bombing us. Why?” She said.
While Russia targeted Zaporizhia ahead of the blast on the Crimean bridge on Saturday, the attack on the 12-mile span was a major blow to Moscow. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 after a hastily convened local vote, a move that drew US and European Union sanctions.
Putin personally opened the $3.7 million Kerch Bridge in May 2018 by driving a truck across it 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.
The Crimean Peninsula is a popular destination for Russian tourists and is home to a Russian naval base. A Russian tourism association estimates that 50,000 tourists stayed in Crimea on Saturday.
Putin signed a decree late Saturday to tighten security for the bridge and power infrastructure between Crimea and Russia, handing responsibility for the effort to Russia’s FSB federal security service.
Some Russian lawmakers have urged Putin to declare a “counterterrorism operation” rather than using the term “military special operation,” which has downplayed the scale of the fighting for ordinary Russians.
Hours after the blast, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Air Force Chief General Sergei Surovikin would now command all Russian troops in Ukraine. Surovikin, who was put in charge of troops in southern Ukraine this summer, had led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a bombardment that destroyed much of Aleppo.
No one has taken responsibility for damaging the bridge. Selenskyj indirectly admitted the bridge attack in a video speech, but did not go into the cause.
“Today was not a bad day and mostly sunny on our territory,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was cloudy in Crimea. Although it was warm too.”
Train and car traffic across the bridge has been temporarily suspended. Car traffic resumed on Saturday afternoon on one of the two links that remained intact, with the flow alternating in both directions, said Russia-backed Crimea leader Sergey Aksyonov.
The Russian Ministry of Transport said on Telegram Sunday that passenger train services between Crimea and mainland Russia had resumed overnight “as planned”. In a separate Telegram post on Sunday, the ministry said car ferries also operated between Crimea and the mainland.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said videos of the bridge showed the damage from the blast “is likely to increase friction in Russian logistics for some time,” but Russia’s ability to deploy its troops in to equip Ukraine, does not paralyze .
“The collapsed track of the road bridge will restrict Russian military movements until it is repaired and will force some Russian forces to rely on the ferry service for some time,” the institute said. “Russian armed forces will probably continue to be able to transport heavy military equipment via the railway.”
While Russia seized areas north of Crimea early in its invasion of Ukraine and built a land corridor there along the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is pushing for a counteroffensive to retake that territory and other parts of Ukraine that Putin illegally annexed this month.
Ukraine’s military said Sunday morning fierce clashes were underway around the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka in eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces recently claimed some territorial gains.
In its regular social media update, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not concede any loss of territory, but said that around the two cities “the most tense situation” in the entire territory of Ukraine was observed.
The regional governor of Zaporizhia reported that the death toll rose to 32 after Russia’s rocket attack on a civilian convoy moving out of the city on September 30.
Part of the Zaporizhia region currently under Russian control is home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has repeatedly been endangered by fighting, and Ukrainian authorities shut down its last operational reactor last month to prevent a radiation disaster.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear regulatory body, said Saturday that the Zaporizhia plant had lost its last external source of energy after renewed shelling and was now reliant on backup diesel generators.
Schreck reported from Kyiv.
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