A Russian bombardment hit apartment buildings and other targets in the Ukrainian Zaporizhzhia city, killing at least 17 people and wounding dozens, authorities said on Sunday.
The blasts in the city, which remains under Ukrainian control but is in a region Moscow has claimed as its own, blew out windows in adjacent buildings and left at least one high-rise apartment building partially collapsed.
The multiple attacks came after an explosion on Saturday caused the partial collapse of a bridge linking the Crimean peninsula with Russia The Kerch Bridge attack damaged an important supply route for the Kremlin’s faltering war effort in southern Ukraine, an artery that is also a towering symbol of Russia’s power in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday called the attack “a terrorist act” planned by the Ukrainian special services.
“There is no doubt that it was a terrorist act aimed at the destruction of the critical civil infrastructure of the Russian Federation,” Putin said during a meeting with Russian Investigative Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin. “And the authors, perpetrators and those who ordered it are the special services of Ukraine.”
Bastrykin said that Ukrainian special services and citizens of Russia and other countries participated in the attack. He said that a criminal investigation had been launched for a terrorist act.
“We have already established the truck’s route,” he said, saying it had been to Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, North Ossetia and Krasnodar, a region in southern Russia.
In Kyiv, presidential adviser Mikhail Podolyak called Putin’s accusation “too cynical even for Russia.”
“Putin accuses Ukraine of terrorism?” he said. “Not even 24 hours have passed since Russian planes fired 12 rockets into a residential area of Zaporizhzhia, killing 13 people and wounding more than 50. No, there is only one state terrorist and everyone knows who he is.”
Podolyak referred to missile strikes in the city of Zaporizhzhia overnight that brought down part of a large apartment building. The six missiles were launched from Russian-occupied areas in the Zaporizhzhia region, the Ukrainian air force said.
The bombing of the bridge came a day later. putin turned 70, dealing him a humiliating blow that one military analyst called a punch to the face for Putin on his birthday, reports Charlie D’Agata of CBS News.
Rockets hitting Zaporizhzhia overnight damaged at least 20 private houses and 50 apartment buildings, city council secretary Anatoliy Kurtev said. At least 40 people were hospitalized, Kurtev said on Telegram.
The Ukrainian military confirmed the attack and said there were dozens of victims.
Residents gathered behind police tape at a building where several floors collapsed in the blast, leaving a smoldering chasm at least 40 feet wide where apartments once stood.
Tetyana Lazun’ko, 73, and her husband, Oleksii, took refuge in the hallway of their top-floor apartment after hearing sirens warning of an attack. They were spared the worst of the explosion which left them in fear and disbelief.
“There was an explosion. Everything was shaking,” Lazun’ko said. “Everything was flying and I was screaming.”
Shards of glass, entire window and door frames, and other debris littered the exterior floors of the apartment where they had lived since 1974. Lazun’ko wept uncontrollably, wondering why her home in an area with no visible military infrastructure was attacked.
“Why are they bombing us? Why?” she said.
Oleksii, who sat quietly leaning on a wooden cane, suffered three strokes, Lazun’ko said. Breaking his silence, he said slowly, “This is international terrorism. You can’t save yourself from it.”
In recent weeks, Russia has repeatedly attacked Zaporizhzhia, which is the capital of a region of the same name that Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed last week in violation of international law. At least 19 people died in Russian missile attacks on apartment buildings in the city on Thursday.
“Again, Zaporizhzhia. Again, ruthless attacks on civilians, targeting residential buildings, in the middle of the night,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote in a Telegram post.
“Absolute pettiness. Absolute evil… From the one who gave this order, to all those who carried out this order: they will respond. They must. Before the law and the people,” he added.
While Russia targeted Zaporizhzhia before Saturday’s Crimean bridge blast, the attack was a significant blow to Russia, which annexed the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine in 2014. No one has claimed responsibility for damaging the bridge.
Putin signed a decree Saturday night to tighten the security of the bridge and energy infrastructure between Crimea and Russia, putting Russia’s federal security service, the FSB, in charge of the effort.
Some Russian lawmakers have called on Putin to declare an “anti-terrorist operation,” instead of the term “special military operation” that has downplayed the scope of the fight for ordinary Russians.
Hours after the explosion, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the head of the air force, General Sergei Surovikin, would now be in command of all Russian troops in Ukraine. Surovikin, who this summer led troops in southern Ukraine, had led Russian forces in Syria and was accused of overseeing a bombardment that destroyed much of Aleppo.
The 19-kilometre (12-mile) Kerch Bridge, in a strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, is a symbol of Moscow’s claims to Crimea and an essential link to the peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The $3.6 billion bridge, the longest in Europe, is vital to sustaining Russia’s military operations in southern Ukraine. Putin himself presided over the opening of the bridge in May 2018.
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 on the territory of our state,” he said. “Unfortunately, it was cloudy in Crimea. It was also hot though.”
Zelenskyy said that Ukraine wants a future “without occupiers. In all our territory, in particular in Crimea.”
Zelenskyy also said Ukrainian forces advanced or held the line in the east and south, but acknowledged “very, very hard, very hard fighting” around the town of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have managed to recent advances.
Train and automobile traffic on the bridge was temporarily suspended. Car traffic resumed on Saturday afternoon at one of two interchanges that remained intact, alternating flow in each direction, Russian-backed Crimean leader Sergey Aksyonov said.
The Russian Transport Ministry said on Telegram on Sunday that passenger train traffic between Crimea and the Russian mainland resumed overnight “according to schedule.”
In a separate Telegram post on Sunday, the ministry said car ferries were also operating between Crimea and the mainland, with the first crossing taking place shortly before 2 a.m. local time (11 p.m. GMT).
While Russia seized areas north of Crimea early in its invasion of Ukraine and built a land corridor along the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is mounting a counteroffensive to recapture that territory, as well as four regions that Putin illegally annexed this month.
Russia has intensified its attacks on the city of Zaporizhzhia since it formally absorbed the surrounding region on September 29.
The Zaporizhzhia regional governor reported that the death toll had risen to 32 after Russia’s missile attack on a civilian convoy leaving the city on September 30. In a Telegram post, Oleksandr Starukh said that one more person died in hospital on Friday. .
A part of the Zaporizhzhia region, currently under Russian control, is home to the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Fighting has repeatedly endangered the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, with Ukrainian authorities shutting down its last working reactor last month to avert a radiation disaster.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, said on Saturday that the Zaporizhzhia plant lost its last remaining external power source as a result of further bombing and is now relying on emergency diesel generators.
The Crimean peninsula is a popular destination for Russian tourists and is home to a Russian naval base. A Russian tourism association estimated that 50,000 tourists were in Crimea on Saturday.