Written by Justin Speck and Adam Shrek
Zaporizhia, Ukraine (AFP) – The couple crumpled under cover in the early hours of Sunday morning when they heard missiles heading back into their city, which has suffered frequent bombardments as Russian and Ukrainian forces battle for control of territory illegally annexed by Moscow.
“There was an explosion, and then another,” Mukula Markovic said. Then, in a flash, the fourth-floor apartment he shared with his wife disappeared, the 76-year-old said, weeping as he described the nightly strikes on Zaporizhia that destroyed part of an apartment building and left with at least a dozen dead.
“I don’t know when it will be rebuilt,” he said. “I was left 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 counterattacked, regaining control of areas in the south and east, while Moscow’s decision to call in more troops led to protests and a mass exodus of tens of thousands of Russians.
The latest setback was Saturday’s explosion, which caused a partial collapse of the bridge linking Russia to Crimea, which Moscow annexed eight years ago. The attack on the Kerch Bridge damaged an important supply route to the faltering Kremlin’s war effort and a prominent symbol of Russia’s power in the region.
The latest fighting has focused on areas north of Crimea, including Zaporozhye, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed his regret over the recent Telegram attack.
“Again, Zaporizhzhia. Again, merciless attacks on civilians, targeting apartment buildings, in the middle of the night.” At least 19 people were killed in Russian missile strikes on apartment buildings in the city on Thursday.
And he added, “Who gave this order, to everyone who carried out this order: they will answer.”
The Ukrainian Air Force said that the six missiles used in the attack, which occurred on Sunday night, were launched from Russian-occupied areas in the Zaporizhia region. The region is one of four countries Russia declared affiliated with it this month, although its capital is still under Ukrainian control.
From behind the police tape, stunned residents watched as emergency crews tried to reach the upper floors of a building that had been hit directly. A gap of at least 12 meters (40 ft) wide was smoldering in smoke where the apartments stood.
In a neighboring apartment building, a barrage of windows and doors blew out their frames in a radius of hundreds of feet. At least 20 private homes and 50 apartment buildings were damaged, said City Council Secretary Anatoly Kortev.
In the immediate aftermath of the raids, the city council said 17 were killed, but later adjusted that to 12. On Sunday afternoon, regional police reported that 13 were killed and more than 60 wounded, including at least 10 children.
Tetiana Lazonko, 73, and her husband, Oleksiy, hunkered down in the hallway of their upstairs apartment after the sirens first heard. The explosion shook the building and flying off their possessions.
Lazonko wept relentlessly as the couple examined the damage done to their home nearly five decades ago.
Why are they bombing us? Why?” she said.
About 3 kilometers (2 miles) away, in another neighborhood devastated by a missile, three volunteers dug a shallow grave for a German Shepherd dog killed in the raid, whose leg was blown off by the explosion.
Russian officials did not immediately comment on the strikes. Similarly, defense officials avoided direct reference to the explosion that damaged the Crimean Bridge in the Kremlin, which was a major blow to Moscow.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War notes that some nationalist bloggers have begun to deliver rare criticism of Russian Vladimir Putin for his failure 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 the continuation of Russian military operations in southern Ukraine.
Hours after the explosion, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the commander of the Air Force, General Sergei Sorovikin, would now command all Russian forces in Ukraine.
No party has claimed responsibility for damaging the bridge.
Traffic over the bridge was temporarily suspended, but officials said cars and trains were back on Sunday. The Russian Transport Ministry said car ferries were also operating.
The Institute for the Study of War said videos of the bridge indicate that damage from the blast “is likely to increase friction in Russian logistics for some time” but not cripple Russia’s ability to equip its forces in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army said, on Sunday, that violent clashes are continuing around the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the eastern Donetsk region, as Russian forces announced some recent territorial gains.
In its regular update on social media, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not acknowledge any territorial loss, but said that the “most tense situation” over the entire territory of Ukraine had been observed around the two cities.
Shukrik reported from Kyiv.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine