Russia accused Ukraine of carrying out an air strike against a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod on Friday, an incident the Kremlin said could affect peace talks, but a top Kyiv security official denied responsibility.
Russia’s defence ministry said two Ukrainian helicopters struck the facility in Belgorod, some 35km (22 miles) from the border with Ukraine, after entering Russia at extremely low altitude at about 3am Irish time.
The resulting blaze forced the evacuation of some people. But late in the day Belgorod mayor Anton Ivanov said fire services were extinguishing the last remnants.
“There is no threat to human life and health. All residents can return to their homes,” he said in an online post.
Ukraine’s top security official rebuffed the Russian accusation – the first by Moscow of an air strike on Russian soil since Moscow launched its invasion on February 24th. Belgorod is one of Russia’s main logistics hubs for the war.
“For some reason they say that we did it, but according to our information this does not correspond to reality,” said Ukraine security council secretary Oleksiy Danilov.
Earlier, defence ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said he would neither confirm nor deny a Ukrainian role.
“Ukraine is currently conducting a defensive operation against Russian aggression on the territory of Ukraine. And this does not mean that Ukraine is responsible for every catastrophe on Russia’s territory,” he said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian president Vladimir Putin had been briefed about the incident. Mr Peskov said the strike could jeopardise Moscow's peace negotiations with Kyiv.
Mr Danilov retorted: “He says it doesn’t help talks but . . . they kill our children.”
Security camera footage, from a verified location, showed a flash of light from what appeared to be a missile fired from low altitude in the sky, followed by an explosion on the ground.
Regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said the resulting blaze injured two workers. Mr Gladkov also said a second blast damaged a power line near the village of Nikolskoye but that no one was hurt. Pictures he posted showed a crater in a field.
Russian oil firm Rosneft, which owns the fuel depot, said no one was hurt in the fire. Russia’s defence ministry said the facility was exclusively for civilian use.
An ammunition depot near Belgorod caught fire on Wednesday, causing a series of blasts. At the time, Mr Gladkov said authorities were waiting for the defence ministry to establish its cause.
Meanwhile, the the White House said on Friday that the United States is providing Ukraine with supplies and equipment in case Russia deploys chemical or biological weapons.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the supplies were being provided given a warning by the United States and other countries about the possibility that Russia could deploy such weapons in Ukraine and might be planning a “false flag” operation to lay the groundwork for such an attack.
Battle for Kyiv
Russian forces are being pushed back around Kyiv but fighting is still fierce in some areas near Ukraine’s capital, according to Ukrainian officials.
Russia said during negotiations on Tuesday that it would scale down operations in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, both of which are in northern Ukraine, but officials in both regions say fighting has continued in some areas.
Reuters was unable to verify the information about military movements or fighting in Ukraine.
Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has said Russian forces are not withdrawing but regrouping. And Ukrainian officials say Russian troops are losing ground rather than retreating of their own accord.
"Our troops are chasing them both to the northwest and northeast [of Kyiv], pushing the enemy away from Kyiv," said Oleksiy Arestovych, a political adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Mr Arestovych said Russia was carrying out a partial troop rotation and sending some of its forces to fight in eastern Ukraine.
Russian gas was still flowing to Europe on Friday despite a deadline set by Mr Putin to cut it off unless customers pay in roubles, Moscow's strongest threat to retaliate for sanctions imposed over its invasion of Ukraine.
Negotiations aimed at ending the war were set to resume by video link. But after failing to capture a single big Ukrainian city in five weeks of war, Russia says it has shifted its focus to the southeast where it has backed separatists since 2014.
The area includes the port of Mariupol, scene of the war’s worst humanitarian emergency, where the United Nations believes thousands of people have died after more than a month under Russian siege and relentless bombardment.
The Red Cross had hoped to begin evacuations from the city on Friday but Ukraine said Russia had prevent buses from reaching the city on Thursday.
Western sanctions imposed over the war have cut off Russia from much of world trade, but exceptions have been carved out for oil and gas.
Mr Putin signed an order setting a Friday deadline for buyers from "unfriendly" countries to pay for gas using roubles or be cut off, a demand western customers have rejected as an attempt to rewrite contracts that call for payment in euros. Germany, the biggest buyer, called it "blackmail", and had warned this week of a potential emergency if supplies were curtailed.
But there was no sign on Friday of an immediate interruption. Flows remained steady through two of the three main pipelines bringing Russian gas into Europe – Nord Stream 1 across the Baltic Sea and into Slovakia over Ukraine.
Flows through the other main route, the Yamal-Europe pipeline over Belarus, had reversed direction, now bringing gas from Germany to Poland, but this occurs occasionally and did not necessarily indicate a new policy.
Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas giant, said it was continuing to supply Europe via Ukraine in line with requests from consumers that were down only fractionally from Thursday.
A source had said that some contracts involved gas being delivered before payments were due, suggesting the taps might not be turned off immediately.
At talks this week, Moscow said it would curtail offensives near Kyiv and Chernihiv to build trust at peace talks. Kyiv and its allies say Russia is pulling troops out in those areas, not as a goodwill gesture but to regroup because they have taken heavy losses.
The Russians are still bombarding cities even as they pull out, and could be preparing a new assault in the southeast, where they say they want to “liberate” the Donbas region claimed by the separatists, including Mariupol. – Reuters/Guardian