Several dead as Russia strikes Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia after bridge bombing
City suffers fresh bombardment, killing at least 12; traffic renews on part of Kerch Bridge as partial collapse expected to harm, but not cripple, Russian supply lines
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — The couple cowered under a blanket in the early hours of Sunday when they heard missiles headed again for their city, which has suffered repeated barrages as Russian and Ukrainian forces battle for control of territory Moscow has illegally annexed.
“There was one explosion, then another one,” Mucola Markovich said. Then, in a flash, the fourth-floor apartment he shared with his wife was gone, the 76-year-old said, holding back tears as he described the overnight strikes on Zaporizhzhia that brought down a section of an apartment building and left at least a dozen people dead.
“When it will be rebuilt, I don’t know,” he said. “I am left without an apartment at the end of my life.”
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 staged a counteroffensive, retaking areas in the south and east, while Moscow’s decision to call up more troops led to protests and an exodus of tens of thousands of Russians.
The latest setback was an explosion Saturday that caused the partial collapse of a bridge linking Russia with the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed eight years ago.
The attack on the Kerch Bridge damaged an important supply route for the Kremlin’s faltering war effort and a towering symbol of Russia’s power in the region.
Recent fighting has focused on the regions just north of Crimea, including Zaporizhzhia, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lamented the latest attack in a Telegram post.
“Again, Zaporizhzhia. Again, merciless attacks on civilians, targeting residential buildings, in the middle of the night,” he wrote. At least 19 people died in Russian missile strikes on apartment buildings in the city on Thursday.
“From the one who gave this order, to everyone who carried out this order: They will answer,” he added.
The six missiles used in Sunday’s overnight attack were launched from Russian-occupied areas of the Zaporizhzhia region, the Ukrainian air force said. The region is one of four Russia claimed as its own this month, though its capital remains under Ukrainian control.
Stunned residents watched from behind police tape as emergency crews tried to reach the upper floors of a building that took a direct hit. A chasm at least 12-meters (40-feet) wide smoldered where apartments had stood.
In an adjacent apartment building, the barrage blew windows and doors out of their frames in a radius of hundreds of feet. At least 20 private homes and 50 apartment buildings in all were damaged, city council Secretary Anatoliy Kurtev said.
In the immediate aftermath of the strikes, the city council said 17 were killed but later revised that down to 12. Regional police reported on Sunday afternoon that 13 had been killed and more than 60 wounded, at least 10 of whom were children.
Tetyana Lazunko, 73, and her husband, Oleksii, took shelter in the hallway of their top floor apartment after first hearing air raid sirens. The explosion shook the building and sent their possessions flying.
Lazunko wept inconsolably as the couple surveyed the damage to their home of nearly five decades.
“Why are they bombing us. Why?” she said.
About 3 kilometers (2 miles) away, in another neighborhood that was ravaged by a missile, three volunteers dug a shallow grave for a German shepherd dog that was killed in the strike, its leg blown away by the blast.
Russian officials did not immediately comment on the strikes. Defense officials have similarly avoided direct mention of the blast that damaged the Kremlin’s prized Crimea bridge, which was a significant blow to Moscow.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War noted that some nationalist bloggers have begun to levy rare criticism at Russian Vladimir Putin for failing to address the bridge attack.
Putin personally opened the bridge in May 2018 by driving a truck across it in a symbol of Moscow’s claims on Crimea. The bridge, the longest one in Europe, is vital to sustaining Russia’s military operations in southern Ukraine.
Hours after the explosion, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that the air force chief, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, would now command all Russian troops in Ukraine.
No one has claimed responsibility for damaging the bridge.
Traffic over the bridge was temporarily suspended, but officials said both automobiles and trains were crossing again on Sunday. The Russian Transport Ministry said car ferries also were running.
The Institute for the Study of War said videos of the bridge indicated the damage from the explosion “is likely to increase friction in Russian logistics for some time” but not cripple Russia’s ability to equip its troops in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military on Sunday said that fierce clashes were ongoing around the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have claimed some recent territorial gains.
In its regular social media update, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not acknowledge any loss of territory but said that “the most tense situation” on the entire territory of Ukraine had been observed around the two cities.