LONDON: Moscow announced on Saturday that a truck exploded igniting a huge fire and damaging the key Kerch bridge — built as Russia’s sole land link with annexed Crimea — and vowed to find the perpetrators, without immediately blaming Ukraine.
Russia said the blast set ablaze seven oil tankers transported by train and collapsed two car lanes of the giant road and rail structure.
Dramatic social media footage showed the bridge on fire with parts plunging into the sea.
“Today at 6:07 am (0307 GMT) on the road traffic side of the Crimean bridge ... a car bomb exploded, setting fire to seven oil tankers being carried by rail to Crimea,” Russian news agencies cited the national anti-terrorism committee as saying.
The bridge, personally inaugurated by President Vladimir Putin in 2018, is a vital transport link for carrying military equipment to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
Moscow had maintained the bridge crossing was safe despite the fighting.
The Kremlin spokesman said Putin had ordered a commission to be set up to look into the blast, Russian news agencies reported.
Russia’s powerful investigative committee opened a criminal probe into the explosion and sent detectives to the scene.
It said a truck exploded “on the automobile part of the Crimean bridge from the side of the Taman Peninsula”.
The speaker of Crimea’s regional parliament immediately accused Ukraine, though Moscow didn’t apportion blame. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly threatened to strike the bridge and some lauded the attack, but Kyiv stopped short of claiming responsibility.
The bombing that came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 70 could lead him to up the ante in his war on Ukraine.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee said that a truck bomb caused seven railway cars carrying fuel to catch fire, resulting in a “partial collapse of two sections of the bridge.’’
A man and a woman who were riding in a vehicle across the bridge were killed by the explosion and their bodies were recovered, Russia’s Investigative Committee said. It didn’t provide details on the third victim.
The speaker of Crimea’s Kremlin-backed regional parliament blamed Ukraine for the explosion, but downplayed the severity of the damage and said the bridge would be promptly repaired.
“Now they have something to be proud of: over 23 years of their management, they didn’t manage to build anything worthy of attention in Crimea, but they’ve managed to damage the surface of the Russian bridge,’’ Vladimir Konstantinov, chairman of the State Council of the Republic, wrote on Telegram.
The $3.6 billion project is a tangible symbol of Moscow’s claims on Crimea and has provided an essential link to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
The peninsula holds symbolic value for Russia and is key to sustaining its military operations in the south of Ukraine. If the bridge were made inoperable, it would make it significantly more challenging to ferry supplies to Crimea. While Russia seized the areas north of Crimea early on during the attacks and built a land corridor to it along the Sea of Azov, Ukraine is pressing a counteroffensive to reclaim them.
The bridge has train and automobile sections. Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee specified that the explosion and fire led to the collapse of the two sections of one of the two links of the automobile bridge, while another link was intact.
Russia’s Energy Ministry said Crimea has enough fuel for 15 days, adding that it was working on ways to replenish stock.
Authorities suspended passenger train traffic across the bridge until further notice. Putin was informed about the explosion and he ordered the creation of a government panel to deal with the emergency.
This “caused seven fuel tanks to ignite on a train heading towards the Crimea Peninsula. As a result, two lanes partially collapsed.”
While officials in Moscow stopped short of blaming Kyiv, an official in Russian-installed Crimea pointed the finger at “Ukrainian vandals”.
The head of the office of Ukraine’s presidency, Andrii Podolyak, took to Twitter posting a picture of a long section of the bridge half-submerged in the waters.
‘Crimea... the beginning’
“Crimea, the bridge, the beginning,” he wrote.
“Everything illegal must be destroyed, everything stolen must be returned to Ukraine, everything occupied by Russia must be expelled.”
There have been several explosions at Russian military installations in the Crimean peninsula and if it is established that Ukraine was behind the latest blast, alarm bells may sound with the bridge so far from the front line.
The blasts come after Ukraine’s recent lightning territorial gains in the east and south that have undermined the Kremlin’s claim that it annexed Donetsk, neighbouring Lugansk and the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
Russian forces said on Friday they had captured ground in Donetsk in east Ukraine, their first claim of new gains since a Kyiv counter-offensive rattled Moscow’s war effort.
The announcement came as Russia’s Orthodox leader said President Vladimir Putin’s rule had been mandated by God, congratulating him on his 70th birthday, and as the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to rights defenders in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Separatist forces in the war-battered Donetsk region said they had retaken a series of villages near the Ukraine-controlled industrial town of Bakhmut, which has been under Russian shelling for weeks.
AFP journalists in the centre of Bakhmut heard the sound of heavy artillery and multiple rocket launch systems near the remains of a smashed bridge over the Bakhmutka river.
“On the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a grouping of troops of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, with fire support from Russian forces, liberated Otradovka, Veselaya Dolina and Zaitsevo,” separatist forces said on social media.
The Donetsk region, which has been partially controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists for years, is a key prize for Russian forces, which started attacks Ukraine in February.
But Ukraine’s troops in recent weeks have been pushing back against Russian soldiers across the front lines in the south and in the east, including in parts of Donetsk.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Friday his forces had recaptured nearly 2,500 square kilometres (965 square miles) in the counter-offensive that began late last month.
“This week alone, our soldiers liberated 776 square kilometres of territory in the east of our country and 29 settlements, including six in Lugansk region,” he said.
The International Monetary Fund also announced Friday it would provide $1.3 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine.