Ukraine war: divers to check damage to blast-hit Crimea bridge, key to Russia’s invasion, Zaporizhzhia strikes kill ‘13’
- Russian officials said three people had been killed on bridge and seven fuel tanker wagons on 59-wagon train also caught fire
- Since war began Ukrainian officials have regularly suggested they want to destroy bridge; US said Sunday Putin can choose to end war
Russian divers were due on Sunday to assess the damage caused by a powerful blast on a road-and-rail bridge to Crimea that is a prestigious symbol of Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula and a key supply route to forces battling in southern Ukraine.
Saturday’s explosion on the bridge over the Kerch Strait prompted gleeful messages from Ukrainian officials but no claim of responsibility. Russia did not immediately assign blame.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said divers would start work in the morning with a more detailed survey above the waterline expected to be completed by the end of the day, domestic news agencies reported.
“The situation is manageable – it’s unpleasant, but not fatal,” Crimea’s Russian Governor, Sergei Aksyonov, told reporters. “Of course, emotions have been triggered and there is a healthy desire to seek revenge.”
The peninsula had a month’s worth of fuel and more than two months’ worth of food, he said.
Russia’s defence ministry said its forces in southern Ukraine could be “fully supplied” through existing land and sea routes.
Russia’s transport ministry said freight trains and long-distance passenger trains across the bridge were running according to schedule on Sunday. Limited road traffic resumed on Saturday around 10 hours after the blast.
The White House on Sunday declined to comment on the bridge explosion but said it will continue to supply Ukraine with arms and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had started the war and could end it if he chose.
“We don’t really have anything more to add to the reports about the explosion on the bridge. I just don’t have anything to contribute to that this morning,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told ABC’s “This Week” programme.
“What I can tell you is that Mr Putin started this war, and Mr Putin could end it today, simply by moving his troops out of the country.”
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the 19km (12-mile) Crimea Bridge linking the region to its transport network was opened with great fanfare four years later by Putin.
Kyiv demands that Russian forces leave the Black Sea peninsula, as well as Ukrainian territory they seized in the invasion Putin launched in February.
The bridge is a major artery for the Russian forces that control most of southern Ukraine’s Kherson region and for the Russian naval port of Sevastopol, whose governor told locals, “Keep calm. Don’t panic.”
It was not yet clear if the blast was a deliberate attack, but the damage to such a high-profile structure came amid battlefield defeats for Russia and could further cloud Kremlin reassurances that the conflict is going to plan.
On Saturday, Putin signed a decree for tighter security for the bridge, as well as the infrastructure supplying electricity and natural gas to Crimea, and ordered an investigation.
“Conceivably the Russians can rebuild it, but they can’t defend it while losing a war,” said political analyst James Nixey of Britain’s Chatham House think tank.
Russian officials said three people had been killed, probably the occupants of a car travelling near a truck that blew up. On the bridge’s upper level, seven fuel tanker wagons of a 59-wagon train heading for the peninsula also caught fire.
Limited road traffic resumed about 10 hours after the explosion, and Russia’s transport ministry cleared rail traffic to restart.
In the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, just 125km (80 miles) from a Russian-held nuclear power plant that is Europe’s largest, an overnight missile attack killed at least 13 people and injured 87 others, including 10 children, Ukrainian officials said. Some reports said at least 17 had died.
Russian aircraft launched at least 12 missiles, partially destroying a nine-storey block of flats, levelling five other residential buildings and damaging many more, said Oleksandr Starukh, governor of the Zaporizhzhia region.
“Twelve missiles came, all from planes,” he said on state-run television.
Emergency workers and firefighters cordoned off the nine-storey building and dug for survivors and casualties in the smouldering rubble of a massive central section that had collapsed.
The blast wrecked cars and left torn metal window frames, balconies and air conditioners dangling from the building’s shrapnel-pitted facade.
Happy Birthday, Mr President
The Kerch bridge blast came a day after Putin’s 70th birthday, coinciding with Russia’s third senior military appointment in a week. It designated Air Force General Sergei Surovikin to take charge of the invasion effort.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not refer to the blast in a video address on Saturday, saying merely that the weather in Crimea was cloudy.
“But however cloudy it is, Ukrainians know … our future is sunny,” he added. “This is a future without occupiers, across our territory, particularly in Crimea.”
The head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council posted a video of the bridge on social media alongside a video of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy birthday, Mr President”.
Since the war started on February 24, Ukrainian officials have regularly suggested they wanted to destroy the bridge. Ukraine’s postal service said it would print a special stamp.
“Undoubtedly, we are witnessing the beginning of large-scale negative processes in Russia,” Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in a commentary, blaming infighting among Putin’s circle as he attributed the blast to Russian operators.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Kyiv’s reaction to the destruction of civilian infrastructure “testifies to its terrorist nature”.
The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee said a freight truck had blown up on the bridge’s roadway at 6.07am (0307 GMT). It said two spans of the road bridge had partially collapsed, but that the arch spanning the channel through which ships travel between the Black Sea and Azov Sea was not damaged.
Emergencies Minister Alexander Kurenkov told state news agency TASS that quick-thinking railway workers who uncoupled the burning fuel wagons had kept the blaze from spreading.
Images showed half of the roadway blown away, with the other half still attached.
Moscow has portrayed largely Russian-speaking Crimea as a historic part of Russia and, especially this year, one where its citizens could go on holiday.
The blast “will not affect army supply very much”, said Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy administrator of the Kherson region.
“But there will be problems with logistics for Crimea,” he added in a social media post.
Additional reporting by Reuters