Ukraine claimed responsibility for a missile attack that struck the headquarters of Moscow’s Black Sea fleet in annexed Crimea Friday, sparking a huge fire and leaving at least one Russian serviceman missing.
The strike on the symbolic heart of Russia’s Black Sea fleet marks a major blow for Moscow, which has suffered a string of attacks on the strategically important port in recent months.
Plumes of thick smoke could be seen pouring out of the Russian naval headquarters, footage shared on social media showed, while officials said missile fragments had fallen close to a nearby theatre.
“The headquarters of the fleet have been hit in an enemy missile attack,” said Mikhail Razvozhayev, the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city.
Ukraine confirmed the strike had hit Moscow’s naval command base on the peninsula, which Kyiv has vowed to take back since it was annexed by Moscow in 2014.
“Ukraine’s defence forces launched a successful attack on the headquarters of the command of the Black Sea Fleet of Russia in the temporarily occupied Sevastopol,” the Ukrainian army said on Telegram.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian navy told AFP the attack appeared to be a “missile hit”, but declined to confirm the navy’s involvement.
“These measures will continue in the future,” the spokesman added.
Russia’s defence ministry said one serviceman was missing following the attack, after having initially reported that a serviceman had been killed.
“The historic headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet were damaged,” it said, claiming air defence had shot down five missiles.
– Cyberattack –
The attack sparked a flurry of warnings from Russian-installed officials, who urged residents to stay indoors and avoid taking photos from the scene.
“Attention everyone! Another attack is possible. Please do not go to the city centre. Do not leave buildings,” said Razvozhayev, who governs the city of some 500,000 people.
“Everyone who is near the headquarters of the fleet — at the sound of the siren proceed to shelters.”
Rescue workers were at the scene, he added: “Firefighters are taking all measures to eliminate the fire as soon as possible.”
The peninsula was simultaneously hit by an “unprecedented cyberattack” on its internet providers, said Oleg Kryuchkov, an adviser to the Crimea governor.
Ukrainian and Russian attacks in and around the Black Sea have increased since Moscow withdrew from an accord that allowed safe passage to civilian cargo ships from three Ukrainian ports.
Ukraine said this week it struck a military air base near the Crimean town of Saky, while Kyiv’s forces have repeatedly targeted the only bridge that connects the peninsula to the Russian mainland.
Russian officials said Friday that traffic across the bridge had been temporarily halted, while maritime traffic was briefly stopped following the attack on Sevastopol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who visited Washington this week, has urged his allies to provide Ukraine with long-range missiles so it can target positions deeper inside Russia-controlled territory.
Both France and the United Kingdom have supplied Kyiv’s forces with the weapons.
– ‘Energy terror’ –
Russian attacks on Ukraine continued Friday, with authorities reporting one person killed and 15 others injured following a missile strike on the central city of Kremenchuk.
“Fifteen are known to have been injured, one of them is a child,” said Dmytro Lunin, the governor of the central Poltava region which includes Kremenchuk.
“One person died,” he said.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal warned that Russia had restarted its systemic campaign of attacking Ukrainian energy infrastructure, but that air defences were better prepared for the onslaught than last year.
“We understand that the stage of energy terror in this heating season has already begun,” Shmygal said at an economic forum in Kyiv, one day after Moscow’s forces fired more than 40 cruise missiles at Ukraine.
During winter last year Russian forces launched repeated attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid that left millions without electricity, heating and water for extended periods.
This year Ukraine has bolstered its air defences with support from its allies in the West, but officials have warned of new hardship ahead.
“We are much better prepared and stronger than we were last year. For sure, winter will be difficult,” Shmygal said.