Explosions and fires ripped through an ammunition depot in Russia-annexed Crimea in theon the peninsula in just over a week, forcing more than 3,000 people to be evacuated.
Russia accused the explosions in the village of Mayskoye of an “act of sabotage”, without naming the perpetrators.
Separately, the Russian business newspaper Kommersant quoted residents as saying that plumes of black smoke were also rising over an air base in Gvardeyskoye in Crimea.
Ukraine has stopped publicly claiming responsibility for any of the blasts, including those that destroyed nine Russian planes at another Crimean air base last week. Russia captured Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has used it to launch attacks on the country in the war that began nearly six months ago.
In another reported sabotage, Russia’s Tass news agency quoted the FSB’s security agency as saying Ukrainian agents blew up six high-voltage transmission towers in Russia’s Kursk region, close to Ukraine, earlier this month.
If Ukrainian troops were behind the explosions in Crimea, it would significantly escalate the war. Such attacks could also indicate that Ukrainian agents could penetrate deep into Russian-occupied territory, in addition to efforts to weaken Moscow’s forces on the front lines.
“Frankly, that changes the front across the board,” retired US Marine Corps intelligence officer Hal Kempfer told CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata after the attack last week. “If they can keep up the momentum, if they can keep making deep attacks, if they keep making gains over Kherson Oblast, they might be able to push all the way over that southern flank.”
That strike provoked a quick, brutal response from Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s forces retaliated with more shelling and rocket attacks on cities and towns in southern Ukraine.
The Kremlin has demanded that Kiev recognize Crimea as part of Russia as a condition of ending the fighting, while Ukraine has vowed to expel Moscow’s troops from the Black Sea peninsula.
Videos posted to social media showed thick columns of smoke rising over raging flames in Mayskoye, and a series of explosions could be heard. The Russian Defense Ministry said the fires damaged a power plant, power lines, railway lines and apartment buildings.
“We came out to take a look and saw clouds of smoke coming from the cowshed where the military warehouses are,” said resident Maksim Moldovskiy. “We stayed there until about 7-8am. Everything exploded – flashes, fragments, debris that fell on us. Then the emergency services came and said they were evacuating everyone.”
Crimea regional leader Sergei Aksyonov said two people were injured and more than 3,000 people were evacuated from two villages.
“The blasts are quite powerful. Ammunition is all over the ground,” he said, adding that several houses have burned down.
Crimea is a popular summer destination for Russian tourists, and last week’s explosions at Saki Air Force Base in Crimea caused sunbathers on the beaches to flee as flames and columns of smoke rose above the horizon.
Ukrainian officials warned on Tuesday that Crimea would not be spared the ravages of the war.
“Russian-occupied Crimea is not so much about a travel destination as about warehouse explosions and a high risk of death for intruders and thieves,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter.
Russia blamed last week’s explosions with an accidental detonation of ammunition, but satellite photos and other evidence — including the scattered blast sites — pointed to a Ukrainian attack, perhaps with anti-ship missiles, military analysts said.
The British Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence update that ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet are in an “extremely defensive posture” in the waters off Crimea, with ships barely venturing out of sight of the shoreline. Russia’s flagship Moskvaand last month Ukrainian forces recaptured strategic Snake Island.
The “limited effectiveness of the Russian fleet undermines Russia’s overall invasion strategy,” the British said. “This means Ukraine can use resources to pressure Russian ground forces elsewhere.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu accused Western allies not only supplied weapons to Ukraine, but also provided detailed intelligence and instructors to help Ukraine use weapons that could reach deep into occupied territory.
“Western intelligence agencies have not only provided target coordinates for launching attacks, but Western specialists have also overseen the input of that data into weapon systems,” Shoigu said.
Meanwhile, in the Donbas, the industrial expanse to the east that has been the focus of fighting in recent months, a civilian was killed in Russian shelling and two others injured, according to Ukraine’s regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko.
In Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, a civilian was killed and nine others injured by Russian shelling, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said. He said the nighttime attack was “one of the most massive shelling of Kharkiv in recent days”.
Good news came from the region: A United Nations chartered ship loaded with Ukrainian grain set out for the famine-ravaged Horn of Africa in the war’s first such relief effort. The shipment was made possible through an internationally brokered deal to free grain trapped in Ukrainian ports from fighting.