Russian missiles have pounded residential areas in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, hours after an explosion caused severe structural damage to Vladimir Putin’s prized road and rail bridge to Crimea.
At least 12 people were killed and dozens were injured in Zaporizhzhia, while several apartment blocks were left in ruins, as Moscow officials sought to downplay damage to the 12-mile Crimea bridge, a key military supply route for its invasion of Ukraine and symbol of Russian prestige.
Local Zaporizhzhia news outlets shared pictures of residents evacuating flaming buildings during the night, and of rescue crews searching for survivors.
“Merciless strikes on peaceful people again. On residential buildings, just in the middle of the night,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Absolute evil.”
The attack, the second on Zaporizhzhia in the space of a week, comes as Russia struggles to maintain its grip on areas of southern Ukraine it occupied at the war’s outset in February.
Russia now claims the four regions as its own territory after staging local referendums that have been widely labelled a sham, then annexing them in a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin. Ukraine has launched a major counteroffensive, recapturing swaths of the region.
Vladimir Putin annexed Russian-occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia region in late September, but the city itself has remained outside of Moscow’s control. Russia has not been able to clarify how much of Kherson and of the Zaporizhzhia region and city it claims as its territory.
Saturday’s explosion on the Crimean bridge, which Russian officials have said was caused by a truck bomb, left a section of the structure’s motorway track submerged and set a fuel cargo train passing on the parallel railway bridge on fire.
Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the attack, though officials did post several comments mocking Russia on social media and the Ukrainian post office issued a commemorative stamp.
Late on Saturday, Russian officials scrambled to portray the damage to the Crimean bridge as insignificant, limited to one motorway track rather than taking out the entire transport link.
State media showed train travel restarting on the railway line, including of passenger trains. Cars were also permitted to start crossing the bridge again on one of its tracks.
Russian deputy prime minister Marat Khusnullin and Sergei Aksyonov, the Russian-appointed head of the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Kyiv in 2014, visited the bridge at night and spoke about next steps in a bid to focus the narrative on reconstruction.
Khusnullin said a team of divers would assess the scale of the damage to the underwater structure of the bridge, while others would report on visible impairments above the water, including the one submerged motorway track.
“We are surveying the destroyed part, the first results will be available [on Sunday],” the deputy prime minister said. “I gave an order to draw up the timetable of reconstruction within a day. We do not expect any interruptions with supplies. Ferry crossings will work, and after the survey we will understand whether we can allow trucks on the bridge.”
The bridge is a key military supply route for Russian troops in occupied southern Ukraine, and the damage to the bridge could seriously constrain Russia in the area, helping Ukraine to expand its counteroffensive.
Russian defence officials sought to downplay the risks, saying Moscow’s forces would be “fully supplied” using other routes by land or by sea.
The head of the city of Sevastopol on Crimea told residents to keep calm, while Aksyonov, the Crimean governor, said the peninsula had enough fuel to last a month. Queues had already formed at petrol stations on Saturday.
“The situation is manageable — it’s unpleasant, but not fatal,” Aksyonov said. He said the peninsula also had enough food supplies to last over two months.