A senior Ukrainian official has suggested a series of explosions at a Russian airbase in Crimea could have been the work of partisan saboteurs, as Kyiv denied any responsibility for the attack in the Russian-occupied territory that left at least one person dead and eight wounded.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also suggested Russian incompetence as a possible cause of the blasts.
Russia’s Ministry of Defence said the “detonation of several aviation ammunition stores” had caused an explosion at the Saky airbase on the west coast of the peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and used in February as it began its invasion of the rest of the country. It said there had been no attack and no aviation equipment had been damaged.
The Reuters news agency cited witnesses saying they had heard at least 12 explosions around 3:20pm local time (12:20 GMT) from the base near Novofedorivka.
Unverified videos posted on social networks showed sunbathers fleeing a nearby beach as huge clouds of smoke from the explosions rose over the horizon.
Crimea’s health department said one civilian had been killed and a further eight people injured. The area was sealed off within a radius of five kilometres (three miles), authorities there said.
Kyiv denies responsibility
Asked by Dozhd online television channel whether Kyiv was responsible for the attacks, Podolyak replied: “Of course not. What do we have to do with this?”
He added: “People who are living under occupation understand that the occupation is coming to an end.”
Zelenskyy did not directly mention the blasts in his daily video address on Tuesday but said it was right that people were focusing on Crimea.
“We will never give it up… the Black Sea region cannot be safe while Crimea is occupied,” he said, reiterating Kyiv’s position that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine.
If the base was, in fact, struck by the Ukrainians, it would mark the first known major attack on a Russian military site on the Crimean Peninsula and a significant escalation of the conflict.
The headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Crimean port of Sevastopol was hit by a small-scale explosion delivered by a makeshift drone last month in an attack that was blamed on Ukrainian saboteurs.
Officials in Moscow have long warned Ukraine that any attack on Crimea would trigger massive retaliation, including attacks on “decision-making centres” in Kyiv.
The Saky base has been used by Russian warplanes to attack areas in Ukraine’s south on short notice. Crimea borders the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, now occupied by Moscow.
Fighting near power plant
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials reported at least three Ukrainian civilians were killed and 23 wounded by Russian shelling in 24 hours, including an attack not far from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is also not far from the Saky base.
The Russians fired more than 120 rockets at the town of Nikopol, across the Dnieper River from the plant, Dnipropetrovsk Governor Valentyn Reznichenko said. Several apartment buildings and industrial sites were damaged, he added.
Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling the power station, stoking international fears of a catastrophe.
Oleksandr Starukh, the governor of the region where the plant is located, said on Tuesday that radiation levels were normal. But he warned that an accident could spread radiation with the wind, potentially carrying it to Moscow and other Russian cities.
A Russian-installed official in the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region said an air defence system at the plant would be reinforced in the aftermath of last week’s shelling.
Evgeny Balitsky, head of the Kremlin-backed administration, told Russian state TV that power lines and other damaged portions of the plant had been restored.
The Ukrainians in recent weeks have been mounting counterattacks in Russian-occupied areas of southern Ukraine while trying to hold off the Kremlin’s forces in the industrial Donbas region in the east.
Battles in the east
Heavy fighting was also reported in front-line towns near the eastern city of Donetsk, where Ukrainian officials said Russian troops were launching waves of attacks as they tried to expand their control of the region.
The Ukrainian military said it had repelled ground assaults in the direction of the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said his forces had captured a factory for Moscow on the edge of the eastern town of Soledar. Other Russian-backed forces said they were in the process of “clearing out” the heavily fortified village of Pisky. Russian media reported that a group of mercenaries from the Wagner Group had dug in near the city of Bakhmut.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify the different accounts from the battlefield.
British military intelligence, which is helping Ukraine, said Russia’s push towards Bakhmut had been its most successful operation in the Donbas in the last 30 days, but that it had still only managed to advance approximately 10km (six miles).