MOSCOW >> At least one bystander narrowly escaped death when a Russian military helicopter accidentally fired rockets into a parking lot during a training exercise, a video released today shows.
The video, from the online news portal 66.ru, shows two helicopters swooping over a field at treetop level before one suddenly fires off rockets that seem to hit a truck just a few yards from the bystander, who was standing in the parking lot, which is next to a firing range near St. Petersburg.
The misfire came during a major exercise, called Zapad 2017, or West 2017, though the timing of the strike was unclear. The exercises began Sept. 14 and were expected to run through Sept. 20.
Intended to flex Russian military muscle along the border with NATO countries to the west of Russia, the exercises have also highlighted some safety lapses. Already one Russian soldier has died from a ricocheting tank shell.
The Russian military issued a strongly worded statement denying that the helicopter mishap occurred on Sept. 18, when President Vladimir Putin visited the firing range. But it did not dispute the authenticity of the video.
“The targeting system on one helicopter mistakenly acquired a target,” the statement explained. “The strike by unguided rockets damaged a truck.”
“All reports on social media of salvos fired at a crowd of journalists and a large quantity of gravely injured people are intentional provocations, or somebody’s personal stupidity,” the statement said. It did not clarify whether anyone was wounded in the misfire.
The news portal said an unidentified witness had provided the video, and suggested the mishap at the Luzhsky firing range occurred either Sunday or Monday. A longer video posted by another news site, Fontanka, shows civilian cars and a military truck damaged by shrapnel.
Zapad 2017 is a revival of a Soviet-era training maneuver that once included forces from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet military alliance whose members have now joined NATO. Today, only the armies of Belarus and Russia take part.
The exercises have raised fears in Belarus that the Kremlin intends to leave behind some of its forces, creating a permanent military presence there.
Tensions are also high across the border, particularly in the Baltic states, where defense planners recall that similar large scale war games were used as by Russia to cover preparations for the invasion of Crimea and the establishment of a separatist zone in eastern Ukraine.