ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday called attack the vast Kerch Bridge to Crimea the “terrorist act” carried out by the Ukrainian special services and the head of the Russian investigation immediately opened a criminal terror investigation into the explosion that damaged the famous Russian landmark.
What Russian authorities called a truck bomb on Saturday hit a large bridge connecting Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed eight years ago from Ukraine. Road and rail traffic on the bridge was temporarily halted, damaging important supply routes for Kremlin troops and dealing a sharp blow to Russia’s prestige.
“Undoubtedly it was a terrorist act aimed at destroying the important civilian infrastructure of the Russian Federation,” Putin said in a video of Sunday’s meeting with the chairman of the Russian Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin. “And the writers, perpetrators and those who ordered it are Ukrainian special services.”
Bastrykin said that Ukrainian special services and citizens of Russia and other countries took part in the attack.
“We have determined the route of the truck,” he said, adding that the truck had been to Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, North Ossetia and Krasnodar – a region in southern Russia – among other places.
The remarks followed a Russian missile strike overnight in the city of Zaporizhzhia that partially collapsed a large apartment building, killing at least a dozen people.
The six missiles used in Sunday night’s attack were launched from Russian-occupied territory in the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine’s air force said. The territory is one of four that Russia claimed as its own this month, although its capital of the same name remains under Ukrainian control.
Russia has suffered a series of setbacks nearly eight months after invading Ukraine in a campaign that many believe will be short-lived. In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have retaliated, retaking areas in the south and east, while Moscow’s decision to call in more troops has led to protests and the exodus of tens of thousands of Russians.
Recent fighting has focused on areas north of Crimea, including Zaporizhzhia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lamented the latest attack in a Telegram post.
“Once again, Zaporizhzhia. Again, merciless attacks on civilians, targeting residential buildings, in the middle of the night,” he wrote. At least 19 people were killed in a Russian missile attack on apartment buildings in the city on Thursday.
“From those who give this order, to all who carry out this order: They will answer,” he added.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called attacks on civilians a war crime and urged an international investigation.
Astonished residents watched from behind police tape as emergency crews attempted to reach the top floor of a building that was hit by a direct hit. A ravine at least 40 feet wide is smoldering where the apartment once stood. In an adjacent apartment building, a barrage of missiles blasted windows and doors from their frames in a radius of hundreds of feet. At least 20 private homes and 50 apartment buildings were damaged, said city council secretary Anatoliy Kurtev.
Regional police reported Sunday afternoon that 13 had been killed and more than 60 injured, at least 10 of them children.
Tetyana Lazunko, 73, and her husband, Oleksii, took cover in the hallway of their upstairs apartment after hearing air raid sirens. The explosion shook the building and sent their possessions flying. Lazunko burst into tears as the couple watched the destruction of their home for nearly five decades.
“Why did they bomb us? Why?” he said.
Others called the missile strikes relentless.
“There was one explosion, then another,” said Muchola Markovich, 76. In an instant, the fourth-floor apartment he shared with his wife was gone.
“When it will be rebuilt, I don’t know,” said Markovich. “I was left without an apartment at the end of my life.”
About 2 miles away in another missile-damaged neighborhood, three volunteers dug a shallow grave for a German shepherd who died in the attack, the dog’s paw being blown off by the blast.
Abbas Gallyamov, an independent Russia political analyst and former speechwriter for Putin, said the Russian president, who formed a committee on Saturday to investigate the bridge explosion, had not responded strongly enough to satisfy angry war hawks. The attacks and responses, he said, had “inspired the opposition, while loyalists were demoralized.”
“Because again, they see that when the authorities say that everything went according to plan and we won, they are lying, and that lowers their morale,” he said.
Putin personally opened the Kerch Bridge in May 2018 by driving a truck across it as a symbol of Moscow’s claim to Crimea. The longest bridge in Europe is important for sustaining Russia’s military operations in southern Ukraine.
No one has claimed responsibility for the damage.
Traffic over the bridge was temporarily halted after the explosion, but both cars and trains crossed again on Sunday. Russia has also restarted car ferry services.
Crimea is a popular holiday resort for Russians. People trying to drive onto the bridge and onto the Russian mainland on Sunday were stuck in traffic for hours.
“We were a bit unprepared for such a turn,” said one driver, Kirill Suslov, sitting in the middle of traffic. “That’s why the atmosphere is a bit gloomy.”
The Institute for the Study of War said video of the bridge showing damage from the explosion “is likely to increase friction in Russian logistics for some time” but did not cripple Russia’s ability to supplement its forces in Ukraine.
In other news:
— In the devastated Ukrainian city of Lyman, which was recently recaptured after months of Russian occupation, Ukraine’s national police say authorities have exhumed the first 20 bodies from a mass burial site. Early indications were that about 200 civilians were buried at one site, and another grave containing the bodies of dead Ukrainian soldiers. Civilians, including children, were buried in single graves, while members of the military were buried in a 40-metre-long trench, according to police.
— Ukraine’s military said on Sunday that fierce clashes were taking place around the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have claimed some territorial gains recently. The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces did not acknowledge the loss of territory but said a “most tense situation” had been observed around the two cities.
— The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, meanwhile, said that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, had been reconnected to the grid after losing its last external power source Saturday morning after the shooting.