Russian strikes hit Ukrainian building, killing 13

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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine – The couple curled up under a blanket before dawn on Sunday when they heard missiles heading back towards their town, which came under repeated barrage as Russian and Ukrainian forces battle for control of territory which Moscow has illegally annexed.

“There was an explosion, then another,” Mucola Markovich said. Then, in a flash, the fourth-floor apartment he shared with his wife was gone, the 76-year-old said, fighting back tears.

Nightly Russian missile strikes on the town of Zaporizhzhia destroyed part of a large apartment building, killing at least a dozen people.

“When it will be rebuilt, I don’t know,” Markovich said. “I find myself without an apartment at the end of my life.”

The strikes come as Russia suffered a series of setbacks nearly eight months after invading Ukraine in a campaign many thought would be short-lived. In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have launched a counter-offensive, recapturing areas to the south and east, while Moscow’s decision to call in more troops has sparked protests and an exodus of tens of thousands of Russians.

The latest setback for Moscow was an explosion on Saturday that hit a huge bridge linking Russia with the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed eight years ago. The attack on the Kerch Bridge damaged an important supply route for Kremlin forces and dealt a blow to Russian prestige.

Recent fighting has focused on areas just north of Crimea, including Zaporizhzhia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lamented the latest attack in a Telegram message.

“Again, Zaporizhzhia. Again merciless attacks on civilians, targeting residential buildings, in the middle of the night,” he wrote. At least 19 people died in Russian missile strikes on apartment buildings in the city on Thursday.

“From the one who gave this order, to all those who carried out this order: they will respond,” he added.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called the attacks on civilians a war crime and called for an international investigation.

All six missiles used in Sunday’s night attack were launched from Russian-occupied areas in the Zaporizhzhia region, the Ukrainian Air Force said. The region is one of four that Russia claims as its own this month, although its capital of the same name remains under Ukrainian control.

Stunned residents watched behind the police tape as emergency crews tried to reach the upper floors of a building which was directly hit. A sinkhole at least 12 meters (40 feet) wide brooded where apartments once stood.

In an adjacent building, the barrage of missiles blew windows and doors out of their frames within a radius of hundreds of feet. At least 20 private homes and 50 apartment buildings were damaged, city council secretary Anatoliy Kurtev said.

Immediately after, the city council said 17 people had been killed, but later revised that figure to 12. Regional police reported on Sunday afternoon that 13 people had been killed and more than 60 injured, including at least 10 children .

Tetyana Lazunko, 73, and her husband, Oleksii, took refuge in the hallway of their top-floor apartment after hearing air raid sirens. The explosion shook the building and blew their belongings. Lazunko wept as the couple surveyed the damage to their home for nearly five decades.

“Why are they bombing us? Why?” she said.

About 3 kilometers (2 miles) away, in another missile-ravaged neighborhood, three volunteers dug a shallow grave for a German shepherd dog killed in the strike, its paw blown off in the blast.

Russian officials did not immediately comment on the strikes. Defense officials also avoided directly mentioning the explosion that damaged the Kremlin popular Crimean bridge.

Some nationalist bloggers have begun to level rare criticism at Russia’s Vladimir Putin for failing to respond to the attack on the bridge, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War noted.

Abbas Gallyamov, an independent Russian political analyst and former Putin speechwriter, said the Russian president, who formed a committee on Saturday to investigate the bridge blast, did not respond forcefully enough to satisfy the hawks angry war. The attack and response, he said, “inspired the opposition, while loyalists are demoralized”.

“Because again, they see that when the authorities say that everything is going as planned and that we are winning, they are lying, and that demoralizes them,” he said.

Putin personally opened the Kerch Bridge in May 2018 by driving a truck over it as a symbol of Moscow’s claims over Crimea. The bridge, the longest in Europe, is vital to support Russian military operations in southern Ukraine.

No one has claimed responsibility for damaging it.

Traffic on the bridge was temporarily suspended after the explosion, but cars and trains passed each other again on Sunday. Russia has also restarted the car ferry service.

Crimea is a popular vacation spot for Russians. People trying to get to the bridge and on the Russian mainland on Sunday encountered hour-long traffic jams.

“We weren’t prepared for such a turn,” said one driver, Kirill Suslov, sitting in traffic. “That’s why the mood is a bit gloomy.”

The Institute for the Study of Warfare said videos from the bridge indicated damage from the blast ‘is likely to increase friction in Russian logistics for some time’, but does not cripple capacity of Russia to equip its troops in Ukraine.

Hours after the explosion, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that Air Force Chief General Sergei Surovikin would now command all Russian troops in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military said on Sunday that heavy clashes were taking place around the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the eastern region of Donetsk, where Russian forces have recently claimed territorial gains. The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not recognize any loss of territory but said that “the most tense situation” had been observed around these two cities.

And in the devastated Ukrainian town of Lyman, which was recently recaptured after a months-long Russian occupation, authorities were searching for the bodies of other civilians. Mark Tkachenko of the Kramatorsk district police said Lyman had become a “humanitarian crisis” which could still hold other grim finds like mass graves.

Schreck reported from Kyiv.

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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