An explosion that sparked a fire on a bridge to Crimea caused massive damage to the structure’s train tracks and roadway, prompting a shake-up of security by Russia and jubilation among Ukrainian officials.
The blast sent smoke and flames into the air as one of the key supply routes for Moscow’s floundering military campaign in Ukraine was torn asunder.
It was also a major symbolic blow as the bridge connecting mainland Russia to the occupied Crimean peninsula was opened by President Vladimir Putin himself to much pomp and fanfare in 2018.
The exact cause of the early Saturday blast remains unknown. Russia so far has said a truck exploded, without attributing responsibility. Many Ukrainian officials have gloated over the incident, but have yet to directly claim it as their attack.
In his nightly remarks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky only hinted at the drama that had unfolded. He noted it had been a sunny day across Ukraine, but “in Crimea, unfortunately, cloudy, although warm there too.”
He said the advance of Ukrainian troops continues in the south and east of the country, but did not give any details about new conquests.
At least three people were killed on the bridge, Russia’s national investigation committee said citing preliminary findings, adding that the bodies were recovered from the water.
Images show a destroyed lane and car parts floating in the water underneath and several burned-out wagons of a freighter train said to have transported diesel fuel.
The fire was eventually extinguished and traffic was partially reinstated linking Ukraine’s annexed Crimean peninsula with Russia.
However, the 19-kilometre-long structure, built by the Kremlin and a critical supply route, remains closed to lorries for now.
Russia’s national investigation committee said that a truck had exploded on the road part of the bridge, causing seven fuel tanks of a train headed to the peninsula to catch fire. As a result, parts of the roadway collapsed.
Alongside the truck driver, the other two people who died were driving in a car next to the vehicle when it exploded.
Preliminary findings suggest the truck was headed from the Russian mainland to the coastal town of Kerch.
Putin responded by reorganizing the prized bridge’s security, with the FSB secret service told to tighten controls over the bridge.
“The FSB will be given powers to organize and coordinate protective measures for the transport route across the Kerch Strait, for the Russian Federation’s power bridge to the Crimean peninsula and the gas pipeline from the Krasnodar Territory Crimea,” a decree said.
Up to now, security was overseen by the Defence Ministry, the Rosgvardiya National Guard and the Ministry of Transport.
In Russia, leading foreign policy expert Leonid Sluzki called the blast a “terrorist attack.” He said “consequences will be inevitable” if it was planned by Ukraine.
Sluzki said many statements made by Ukrainian lawmakers suggested Kiev had organized the attack, after Ukrainian media reported that the SBU secret service had carried out the operation.
Kiev has vowed to retake Crimea, as well as the other four regions illegally annexed by Russia during the course of the war which began in February. Crimea was annexed in 2014.
The incident brought a jubilant reaction from Ukrainians on social media.
“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning. Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor in the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky, tweeted.
Meanwhile, the power supply to the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, was cut off again, the operator said.
The external electricity supply is needed in order to cool the fuel rods of the plant that has been occupied by Russian forces since March but staffed by its Ukrainian employees.
The Ukrainian nuclear operator Enerhoatom said the last remaining main power line had been damaged “due to renewed shelling by Russian troops.” Once the plant lost power, diesel generators kicked in automatically.
The diesel supplies available are sufficient to run the plant for 10 days in an emergency, the operator said, noting the lines will have to be repaired.
The sprawling complex in south-eastern Ukraine has been the site of fierce fighting for months. Its last operating reactor was shut down in September but the risk of disaster remains as the atomic material still needs the external power for cooling operations to avoid a meltdown.
Zaporizhya is one of the four areas recently annexed by Moscow although Russian forces do not completely control them.
In Kherson, another annexed region, the Russian occupying authorities were preparing to evacuate tens of thousands of civilians, under pressure from swiftly advancing Ukrainian troops.
Russia’s southern Krasnodar and Stavropol regions are ready to receive Ukrainian children and adults, Kherson’s Russian-installed leader Vladimir Saldo said on Telegram.
Another occupation official in Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, acknowledged on Russian state television that his administration was preparing for “a difficult time.”
Russia invaded neighbouring Ukraine on February 24. Some seven months after the war began, the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive is retaking terrain in the eastern regions of Kharkiv and Donetsk. The Ukrainians also recently reported the successful recapture of several villages in Kherson.
As progress falters, Moscow appeared to bow to critics in Saturday by appointing 55-year-old army general Sergei Surovikin to lead Russia’s faltering “special military operation” in Ukraine, according to Defence Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu appointed Surovikin after critics demanded a redeployment of troops in Ukraine given the defeats faced by Russian forces of late.