By JUSTIN SPIKE and ADAM SCHRECK
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) – The couple huddled under a blanket in the early hours of Sunday when they heard rockets again aimed at their city, which has come under repeated shelling as Russian and Ukrainian forces battle for control of territory that Moscow has illegally annexed it.
“There was one explosion, then another,” Mucola Markovich said. Then, in an instant, the fourth-floor apartment he shared with his wife was gone, the 76-year-old said, holding back tears as he described overnight attacks in Zaporizhzhia that toppled part of a building and left at least a dozen dead people.
“When it will be rebuilt, I don’t know,” he said. “I was left without an apartment at the end of my life.”
The attacks come as Russia has 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 mounted a counteroffensive, retaking areas in the south and east, while Moscow’s decision to call in more troops led to protests and an exodus of tens of thousands of Russians.
The latest setback was an explosion on Saturday that caused the partial collapse of a bridge connecting Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed eight years ago. The attack on the Kerch bridge damaged an important supply route for the Kremlin’s faltering war effort and a major symbol of Russia’s power in the region.
Recent fighting has focused on regions north of Crimea, including Zaporizhzhia, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy complained about the latest attack in a Telegram post.
“Again Zaporizhzhya. Again, merciless attacks on civilians, targeting residential buildings, in the middle of the night,” he wrote. At least 19 people were killed in Russian rocket attacks on residential buildings in the city on Thursday.
“From the one who gave this order, to all those who followed this order: They will answer,” he added.
The six missiles used in Sunday’s overnight attack were fired from Russian-occupied areas of the Zaporizhzhia region, the Ukrainian air force said. The region is one of four Russia has claimed as its own this month, although its capital remains under Ukrainian control.
Stunned residents watched from behind police tape as emergency crews scrambled to reach the upper floors of a building that took a direct hit. An abyss at least 12 meters wide burned where the apartments were located.
In an adjacent apartment building, the hail blew windows and doors out of their frames hundreds of meters away. At least 20 private houses and 50 apartment buildings were all damaged, city council secretary Anatoliy Kurtev said.
Shortly after the attacks, the city council said 17 were killed, but later revised that to 12. Regional police reported Sunday afternoon that 13 had been killed and more than 60 wounded, at least 10 of whom were children.
Tetyana Lazunko, 73, and her husband, Oleksii, took shelter in the hallway of their top-floor apartment after first hearing air raid sirens. The explosion rocked the building and sent their possessions flying.
Lazunko wept inconsolably as the couple surveyed the damage to their home of nearly five decades.
“Why are they bombing us? Why?” she said.
About 3 kilometers (2 miles) away, in another neighborhood that was destroyed by a rocket, three volunteers dug a shallow grave for a German shepherd dog killed in the attack, its leg blown off by the explosion.
Russian officials did not immediately comment on the attacks. Defense officials have similarly avoided direct mention of the explosion that damaged the Kremlin’s prized bridge in Crimea, which was a significant blow to Moscow.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War noted that some nationalist bloggers have begun making rare criticism of Russia’s Vladimir Putin for failing to address the bridge attack.
Putin personally opened the bridge in May 2018 by driving a truck across it in a symbol of Moscow’s claims to Crimea. The bridge, the longest in Europe, is vital to support Russia’s military operations in southern Ukraine.
Hours after the blast, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that Air Force Chief General Sergei Surovikin would now command all Russian troops in Ukraine.
No one has claimed responsibility for the damage to the bridge.
Traffic on the bridge was temporarily suspended, but officials said cars and trains were running again on Sunday. The Russian Transport Ministry said car ferries were also running.
The Institute for the Study of War said videos of the bridge showed damage from the blast “is likely to increase friction on Russian logistics for some time” but not cripple Russia’s ability to supply its troops in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said on Sunday that heavy fighting was continuing around the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russian forces have claimed some recent territorial gains.
In its regular social media update, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine denied any loss of territory, but said the “most tense situation” across the territory of Ukraine was observed around the two cities.
Schreck reported from Kiev.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine