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Ukraine, Russia trade claims after blast rocks Crimean town

ASSOCIATED PRESS / MARCH 18
                                Young people unfurl a giant Russian flag during an action to mark the ninth anniversary of the Crimea annexation from Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia.
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ASSOCIATED PRESS / MARCH 18

Young people unfurl a giant Russian flag during an action to mark the ninth anniversary of the Crimea annexation from Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia.

SPUTNIK, KREMLIN PRESS SERVICE POOL PHOTO VIA AP / MARCH 18
                                Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev visit the Children’s Art and Aesthetic center, part of Chersonesos Taurica historical and archeological park in Sevastopol, Crimea. Putin has traveled to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine.
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SPUTNIK, KREMLIN PRESS SERVICE POOL PHOTO VIA AP / MARCH 18

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev visit the Children’s Art and Aesthetic center, part of Chersonesos Taurica historical and archeological park in Sevastopol, Crimea. Putin has traveled to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine.

ASSOCIATED PRESS / MARCH 18
                                Young people unfurl a giant Russian flag during an action to mark the ninth anniversary of the Crimea annexation from Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia.
SPUTNIK, KREMLIN PRESS SERVICE POOL PHOTO VIA AP / MARCH 18
                                Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev visit the Children’s Art and Aesthetic center, part of Chersonesos Taurica historical and archeological park in Sevastopol, Crimea. Putin has traveled to Crimea to mark the ninth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine.

KYIV, Ukraine >> Russian and Ukrainian officials gave conflicting accounts Tuesday of what appeared to be a brazen attack on Russian cruise missiles transported by train in the occupied Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula.

A Ukrainian military spokesperson indicated that Kyiv was behind the explosion late Monday that reportedly destroyed multiple Kalibr cruise missiles near the town of Dzhankoi in northern Crimea, while stopping short of directly claiming responsibility.

Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern operational command, described the strike as a signal to Russia that it should leave the Black Sea peninsula it illegally took from Ukraine in 2014.

Speaking on Ukrainian TV, Humeniuk pointed out Dzhankoi’s importance as a railway junction and said that “right now, the way ahead (for Russian forces in Crimea) is clear — they need to make their way out by rail.”

A vague statement by Ukraine’s military intelligence agency on Monday said multiple missiles carried by rail and destined for submarine launch had been destroyed, without saying outright that Ukraine was responsible or what weapon had been used. However, the agency implied that Kyiv was behind the blast, saying it furthers “the process of Russia’s demilitarization, and prepares the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea for de-occupation.”

Moscow-installed authorities in Crimea on Tuesday provided a different version, saying that Ukrainian drones attacked civilian facilities in Dzhankoi.

Sergei Aksenov, the Kremlin-appointed head of Crimea, said the attack left one civilian wounded, but caused “no serious damage.”

Aksenov’s adviser, Oleg Kryuchkov, rejected Ukraine’s claims and said Ukrainian drones had targeted residential areas rather than the railway. Igor Ivin, head of the local administration in Dzhankoi, said the attack damaged power lines, a private house, a store and a college building.

Unconfirmed social media reports late Monday claimed that Russia’s anti-aircraft defenses shot down multiple drones over Crimea. None of the statements could be independently verified.

Throughout the war, reports have surfaced of attacks on Russian military bases and other infrastructure in Crimea, with Ukraine rarely explicitly claiming responsibility but greeting the incidents with jubilation.

In August, powerful explosions rocked a Russian air base in western Crimea, with Ukraine later saying nine warplanes were destroyed. Satellite photos showed at least seven fighter planes had been blown up and others probably damaged. Ukrainian officials initially steered clear of taking credit, while mocking Russia’s explanation that a careless smoker might have caused ammunition at the Saki base to catch fire and blow up. Unusually, Ukraine’s top military officer weeks later claimed that he had ordered the strikes.

Russian-appointed authorities have also previously reported repeated Ukrainian drone attacks on Crimea, most of which targeted the port of Sevastopol that hosts a major Russian naval base.

These incidents in Crimea, as well as reported drone attacks on Russian territory far from the war’s front lines, have exposed major weaknesses in Moscow’s defenses and embarrassed Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly believed the invasion of Ukraine would be quick and easy.

In other developments:

— Ukraine’s human rights chief said that Kyiv has brought back 15 more Ukrainian children deported by Russian forces from the country’s south and northeast, where Moscow held large swaths of territory earlier in the war.

Dmytro Lubinets spoke just days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, accusing him of bearing personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian government, over 16,000 minors were forcibly taken to Russia and Russian-occupied areas, with some put up for adoption by Russian families and just 308 repatriated so far.

— Civilians were killed and wounded after Russia pounded an eastern Ukrainian town with missiles, damaging more than a dozen buildings, Ukraine’s national broadcaster Suspilne reported. A spokeswoman for the regional prosecutor’s office, Anastasia Medvedeva, told Suspilne that a couple died after an anti-aircraft missile slammed into their house in Chasiv Yar, just over 10 kilometers (six miles) west of the embattled city of Bakhmut, while another resident had been hospitalized. Earlier on Tuesday, top Ukraine presidential aide Andriy Yermak posted photos on Telegram of what he said was the aftermath of the attack, showing major damage to an apartment building.

— Russian warplanes flying over the Black Sea fired missiles, most of which were intercepted, at the port city of Odesa, the regional government reported. It said debris caused building damage on the ground but no casualties.

— Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Tuesday chaired a meeting of top defense and security officials, focusing on coordinating arms and ammunition supplies for the Ukrainian army as well as information security, Zelenskyy’s press office said. The meeting came a day after European Union countries endorsed a fast-track procedure aimed at providing Kyiv with sorely needed artillery shells to repel Russia’s invasion forces, and on the same day the Pentagon announced it would speed up its delivery of Abrams tanks by opting to send a refurbished model that can be ready faster.

— Ukraine’s presidential office reported that at least three civilians were killed and 10 others were wounded by Russian shelling in the previous 24 hours. It said that Russia fired on the southern city of Kherson and its suburbs more than 60 times over that period, killing one person and injuring seven others across the Kherson province.

Fierce battles continued in the eastern Donetsk region, where Russia is straining to encircle the city of Bakhmut in the face of dogged Ukrainian defense. Local Gov. Petro Kyrylenko said on Ukrainian television that Russian shelling there over the previous day killed one civilian and wounded another. Kyrylenko added that a further civilian died and two more suffered wounds in Avdiivka.

Ukrainian authorities have reported on civilian deaths in Bakhmut on a near-daily basis since Moscow’s grinding push to take the city began months ago. Of Bakhmut’s prewar population of around 70,000, only several thousand remain as much of the once-proud mining hub has been pounded to rubble.

Ukraine’s ground forces chief said Bakhmut’s Ukrainian defenders continue to thwart Russian attempts to push on to the city center.

“The defense of Bakhmut continues,” Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi tweeted.

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