Friday, December 9

Russian divers to check damage to blast-hit Crimea bridge


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KYIV — Russian divers were to examine on Sunday the damage from a powerful blast on a road-and-rail bridge to Crimea that is an imposing symbol of Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula and a key supply route to its forces battling in southern Ukraine.

Saturday’s explosion on the bridge over the Kerch Strait prompted gleeful messages from Ukrainian officials but no claim of responsibility. Russia did not immediately assign blame.

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Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said the divers would start work in the morning, with a more detailed survey above the waterline expected to be complete by day’s end, domestic news agencies reported.

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“The situation is manageable – it’s unpleasant, but not fatal,” Crimea’s Russian governor, Sergei Aksyonov, told reporters. “Of course, emotions have been triggered and there is a healthy desire to seek revenge.”

The peninsula had a month’s worth of fuel and more than two months’ worth of food, he said. Russia’s defense ministry said its forces in southern Ukraine could be “fully supplied” through existing land and sea routes.

Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and the 19-km (12-mile) bridge linking the region to its transport network was opened with great fanfare four years later by President Vladimir Putin.

Kyiv demands that Russian forces leave the Black Sea peninsula, as well as Ukrainian territory they have seized in the invasion Putin launched in February.

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It was not yet clear if Saturday’s blast was a deliberate attack, but the damage to such a high-profile structure came amid battlefield defeats for Russia, and could further cloud Kremlin reassurances that the conflict is going to plan.

Elsewhere, at least 12 people were killed as a result of shelling in Ukraine’s southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia in the early hours of Sunday, and 49 people were hospitalized, including six children, Ukrainian officials said.

A nine-story building was partially destroyed overnight, five other residential buildings were leveled and many more damaged in 12 Russian missile attacks, said Oleksandr Starukh, the governor of the Zaporizhzhia region.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

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Zaporizhzhia city, about 52 km (30 miles) from a Russian-held nuclear power plant that is Europe’s largest, has been under frequent shelling in recent weeks.

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The bridge over the Kerch Strait is a major artery for Russian forces in southern Ukraine, where they control most of the Kherson region and large parts of Zaporizhzhia region, and for the port of Sevastopol where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based.

Russian officials said three people were killed in the blast early on Saturday morning. On the bridge’s upper level, seven fuel tanker wagons of a 59-wagon train heading for the peninsula also caught fire.

Limited road traffic resumed about 10 hours after the explosion, and Russia’s transport ministry also cleared rail traffic to restart.

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The Russian National Anti-Terrorism Committee said a freight truck blew up on the bridge’s roadway. It said two spans of road bridge had partially collapsed, but that the arch spanning the channel through which ships travel between the Black Sea and Azov Sea was not damaged .

Images showed half of the roadway blown away, with the other half still attached.

While the blast would “not affect army supply very much,” there would be problems with logistics for Crimea, Kirill Stremousov, the Russian-installed deputy administrator of the Kherson region, said in a social media post.

The blast came a day after Putin’s 70th birthday and also coincided with Russia’s third senior military appointment in a week. Moscow designated Air Force General Sergei Surovikin to take charge of the invasion effort.

(Reporting by Max Hunder, Jonathan Landay and Reuters bureaux Writing by Kevin Liffey, Alistair Bell and Clarence Fernandez Editing by William Mallard, Frances Kerry and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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