At least 13 people have been killed in shelling of southeastern Ukraine, as speculation swirled around a series of explosions at an airbase in occupied Crimea that Kyiv said destroyed nine Russian warplanes.
Eleven people were also injured in shelling of the government-held town of Marhanets and a nearby village that are across the Dnieper river from a Russian-occupied nuclear power station at Enerhodar, which G7 nations said should be returned immediately to Ukrainian control amid growing fears of potential damage to the plant.
“We had a terrible night. Civilians died who had plans for life,” Dnipropetrovsk regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko said on Wednesday, after Russian shells hit about 20 residential and administrative buildings, schools and a cultural centre in Marhanets.
“It is very hard to get bodies out from beneath the rubble… We are facing a cruel enemy who engages in daily terror against our towns and villages.”
Thousands of civilians have been killed and millions displaced since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbour in February, eight years after annexing Crimea following a revolution in Ukraine that pivoted the country of 40 million towards the West.
A string of major explosions rocked Russia’s Saky airbase in Crimea on Tuesday, sending towers of smoke and flame into the sky and prompting some Russian tourists on the Black Sea peninsula to flee the area.
Footage filmed by eyewitnesses appeared to show at least two explosions taking place almost simultaneously in different parts of the base, but Russian state media quoted an unnamed official at the defence ministry in Moscow as saying ammunition had detonated because of lax safety procedures, not a Ukrainian missile strike or sabotage.
Moscow said one person was killed and nine injured in the explosions and insisted that no military aircraft were damaged at the base, from where Russian warplanes attack Ukraine every day.
Ukraine’s air force said nine Russian military aircraft were destroyed but did not confirm the cause of the blasts. Unnamed Kyiv officials said Ukrainian special forces were behind the explosions, while military analysts speculated that drones or newly-supplied western rockets could have struck the base, which is more than 200km from the frontline.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy did not mention the explosions, but said: “Crimea is Ukrainian, and we will never give it up…This Russian war against Ukraine and against the entire free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – with its liberation.”
Kyiv’s forces are ramping up pressure on Russian troops in southeastern Ukraine, where each side blames the other for shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station – Europe’s biggest – which is in territory now held by Moscow.
Top diplomats from G7 nations and the EU urged Russia to return control of the plant and other nuclear facilities in Ukraine to Kyiv “to ensure their safe and secure operations… It is Russia’s continued control of the [Zaporizhzhia] plant that endangers the region.”
Russia’s actions were “significantly raising the risk of a nuclear accident or incident and endangering the population of Ukraine, neighbouring states and the international community”, they said in a statement.
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