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Explosions rock Russian-held areas far from Ukraine war front


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KYIV — Explosions erupted overnight near military bases deep in Russian-held areas of Ukraine and Russia itself, an apparent display of Kyiv’s growing ability to pummel Moscow’s logistics far from front lines.

The explosions follow huge blasts last week at an air base in Russian-annexed Crimea. In a new assessment, a Western official said that incident had rendered half of Russia’s Black Sea naval aviation force useless in a stroke.

Ukraine also issued a warning about a frontline nuclear power station where it said it believed Moscow was planning a “large-scale provocation” as justification to decouple the plant from the Ukrainian power grid and connect it to Russia’s.

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Continuing the mutual blame game, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of shelling the Zaporizhzhia complex, risking a nuclear catastrophe.

In Crimea – which Moscow seized in 2014 – explosions were reported near an air base in Belbek, on the southwest coast near Sevastopol, headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

On the opposite end of the peninsula, the sky was also lit up at Kerch near a huge bridge to Russia, with what Moscow said was fire from its air defenses.

Russia’s RIA and Tass news agencies, citing a local official in Crimea, said it appeared Russian anti-aircraft forces had been in action near the western Crimean port of Yevpatoriya on Friday night. Video posted by a Russian website showed what appeared to be a ground-to-air missile hitting a target in the air. Reuters was unable to immediately confirm the veracity of the video.

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Inside Russia, two villages were evacuated after explosions at an ammunition dump in Belgorod province, near the Ukrainian border but more than 100 km (60 miles) from territory controlled by Ukrainian forces.

Closer to the front, Kyiv also announced strikes overnight behind Russian lines in southern Kherson province, including at a bridge that served Russia to supply thousands of troops on the west bank of the Dnipro River.

“The Ukrainian armed forces treated the Russians to a magical evening,” said Seriy Khlan, a member of Kherson’s regional council disbanded by Russian occupation forces.

Kyiv has been coy about its role, withholding official comment on incidents in Crimea or inside Russia while hinting that it is behind them using long-range weapons or sabotage.

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Russian officials said they had shot down drones in Belbek and Kerch, and confirmed the evacuation in Belgorod.

HURTING RUSSIA

A Western official indicated on Friday that at least some of the incidents were Ukrainian attacks, saying Kyiv was now consistently achieving “kinetic effects” deep behind Russia’s lines. The attacks were hurting Russia’s forces and had “a significant psychological effect on the Russian leadership,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.

Huge explosions on Aug. 9 at Russia’s Saky air base on the Crimean coast had put more than half of the Black Sea Fleet’s combat jets out of use, the official said, in what would be one of the most costly attacks of the war.

Russia has denied any aircraft were damaged in what it called an accident, although satellite pictures showed at least eight warplanes completely burned out and several huge craters.

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Moscow sacked the head of the Black Sea Fleet this week.

Ukraine hopes its apparent new-found ability to hit Russian targets behind the front line can turn the tide in the conflict, disrupting supply lines Moscow needs to support its occupation.

Since last month, Ukraine has been fielding advanced rockets supplied by the West to strike behind Russian lines. The overnight explosions in Crimea and Belgorod were beyond the range of ammunition Western countries have acknowledged sending so far.

In recent days, Kyiv has been issuing warnings to Russians, for whom Crimea has become a popular summer holiday destination, that nowhere on the peninsula is safe as long as it is occupied.

When the coastal air base was hit last week, Russian tourists were photographed at nearby beaches, staring up from cabanas at huge mushroom clouds in the sky.

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A senior Ukrainian official said around half of incidents in Crimea were Ukrainian attacks of some kind, and half accidents caused by Russia’s poor operations. He emphasized that attacks were carried out by saboteurs rather than long-range weapons, though he would not say whether Kyiv now had ATACMS, a longer range version of the U.S. HIMARS rockets it began using in June.

The official, who declined to be named, said Ukraine had hoped its HIMARS strikes would have a bigger impact in reducing Russian artillery power but that Moscow was now adapting. “At a certain moment, it lowered the number of their strikes, but now it has risen again because they lengthened their supply lines, and moved (the ammunition) back by some distance,” he said.

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Ukraine’s nuclear power operator said on Friday it suspected Moscow was planning to switch over the Zaporizhzhia plant to Russia’s power grid, a complex operation that Kyiv says could cause a disaster.

The power station is held by Russian troops on the bank of a reservoir. Ukrainian forces control the opposite bank.

Moscow has rejected international calls to demilitarize the plant and Putin on Friday renewed his accusation that Kyiv was shelling it in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, according to the Kremlin’s readout.

Macron’s office said Putin agreed to a mission by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Zaporizhia.

Thousands of people have been killed and millions forced to flee since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24, saying it aimed to demilitarize Ukraine and protect Russian speakers on what Putin called historical Russian land.

Ukraine and Western countries view it as a war of conquest aimed at wiping out Ukraine’s national identity.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Tomasz Janowski)

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