Ukraine, Russia trade claims after blast rocks Crimean town

KYIV (AP): Russian and Ukrainian officials on Tuesday gave conflicting accounts of what appeared to be a brazen attack on Russian cruise missiles being transported by train in the occupied Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula.

A Ukrainian military spokesperson indicated that Kyiv was behind the explosion late Monday that reportedly destroyed multiple Kalibr cruise missiles near the town of Dzhankoi in northern Crimea, while stopping short of directly claiming responsibility.

Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern operational command, described the strike as a signal to Russia that it should leave the Black Sea peninsula it illegally took from Ukraine in 2014.

Speaking on Ukrainian TV, Humeniuk pointed out Dzhankoi’s importance as a railway junction and said that “right now, the way ahead (for Russian forces in Crimea) is clear — they need to make their way out by rail already.”

A vague statement by Ukraine’s military intelligence agency on Monday said that multiple missiles carried by rail and destined for submarine launch had been destroyed, without saying outright that Ukraine was responsible or what weapon had been used. However, the agency implied that Kyiv was behind the blast, saying it furthers “the process of Russia’s demilitarization, and prepares the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea for de-occupation.”

Moscow-installed authorities in Crimea on Tuesday offered a different version of events, saying that Ukrainian drones attacked civilian facilities in Dzhankoi.

Sergei Aksenov, the Kremlin-appointed head of Crimea, said that the attack left one civilian wounded, but caused “no serious damage.”

Aksenov’s adviser, Oleg Kryuchkov, rejected Ukraine’s claims and said that Ukrainian drones had targeted residential areas rather than the railway. Igor Ivin, head of the local administration in Dzhankoi, said that the attack damaged power lines, a private house, a store and a college building.

Unconfirmed social media reports late on Monday claimed that Russia’s anti-aircraft defenses shot down multiple drones over Crimea. None of the statements could be independently verified.

Throughout the current war, reports have surfaced of attacks on Russian military bases and other infrastructure in Crimea, with Ukraine rarely explicitly claiming responsibility but greeting the incidents with jubilation.

In August, powerful explosions rocked a Russian air base in western Crimea, with Ukraine later saying nine warplanes were destroyed. Satellite photos showed at least seven fighter planes had been blown up and others probably damaged. Ukrainian officials initially steered clear of taking credit, while mocking Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker might have caused ammunition at the Saki base to catch fire and blow up. Unusually, Ukraine’s top military officer weeks later announced that he had ordered the strikes.

Russian-appointed authorities have also previously reported repeated Ukrainian drone attacks on Crimea, most of which targeted the port of Sevastopol that hosts the main Russian naval base there.

These incidents in Crimea, as well as reported drone attacks on Russian territory far from the war’s front lines, have exposed major weaknesses in Moscow’s defenses and embarrassed Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly believed the invasion of Ukraine would be quick and easy.

Elsewhere, Ukraine’s presidential office on Tuesday reported that at least three civilians were killed and 10 more were injured by Russian shelling in the previous 24 hours. It said that Russia fired on the southern city of Kherson and its suburbs more than 60 times over that period, killing one person and injuring seven others across the Kherson province.

Fierce battles continued in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russia is straining to encircle the city of Bakhmut in the face of dogged Ukrainian defense. Local Gov. Petro Kyrylenko on Tuesday said on Ukrainian TV that Russian shelling there over the previous day killed one civilian and wounded another. Kyrylenko added that a further civilian died and two more suffered wounds in Avdiivka, another front-line city that has routinely come under heavy fire.

Ukrainian authorities have reported on civilian deaths in Bakhmut on a near-daily basis since Moscow’s grinding push to take the city began months ago. Out of Bakhmut’s pre-war population of around 70,000, only several thousand remain as much of the once-proud mining hub has been pounded to rubble.

Ukraine’s ground forces chief on Tuesday said that Bakhmut’s Ukrainian defenders continue to thwart Russian attempts to push on to the city center.

“The defense of Bakhmut continues,” Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a Telegram update.