Ukrainian forces strike key bridge in Russia-occupied south

Ukrainian forces have struck and seriously damaged a bridge that is key for supplying Russian troops in southern Ukraine, a regional official said. It comes as Russian shelling killed civilians, including a 13-year-old boy, in the embattled country’s north-east. Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Moscow-backed temporary administration for the Russia-controlled southern Kherson region, said the Ukrainian military struck the Antonivskyi Bridge, which crosses the Dnieper River, with missiles on Wednesday, scoring 11 hits.

He said in remarks carried by the Interfax news agency the almost mile-long bridge sustained serious damage but was not closed for traffic. Mr Stremousov said the Ukrainian forces used US-supplied Himars multiple rocket launchers, saying some were intercepted by Russian air defences.

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“The bridge wasn’t closed, traffic across it is still continuing, but the situation is serious,” Mr Stremousov said, according to Interfax.

The bridge is the main crossing across the Dnieper River in the Kherson region. Knocking it out would make it hard for the Russian military to keep supplying its forces in the region amid repeated Ukrainian attacks. The head of the Moscow-appointed Kherson administration, Vladimir Saldo, said in a video message that passenger vehicles were allowed to continue driving across the bridge, but truck traffic was halted to allow for quick repairs.

He said trucks could cross the river using a dam about 50 miles away. Wednesday’s shelling of the bridge was the second in as many days. It was lightly damaged by Ukrainian shelling a day earlier, according to the Moscow-backed authorities in Kherson.

Early in the war, Russian troops quickly overran the Kherson region just north of the Crimean Peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.

POLITICS Ukraine(PA Graphics)

They have faced Ukrainian counterattacks but have largely held their ground. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with the state-controlled RT television and RIA Novosti news agency that Russia has expanded the scope of its “special military operation” in Ukraine from the Moscow-backed Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east to the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and other territories. He said when Russia and Ukraine discussed a possible deal to end the hostilities in March, “our readiness to accept the Ukrainian proposal was based on the geography of March 2022?.

“Now it’s a different geography,” he said, as he repeated earlier claims by Moscow the US and Britain are interested in expanding hostilities. Mr Lavrov said “they want to turn it into a real war and provoke a clash between Russia and European countries”. He claimed the US is preventing Ukraine from engaging in talks on a possible settlement with Russia.

“They are keeping them from any constructive steps and not only pumping in weapons but forcing them to use those weapons in an increasingly risky way,” Mr Lavrov said. Meanwhile, in a sign of the crippling economic impact of the war on Ukraine, a resolution by its government said the country will ask investors to allow it to postpone foreign debt payments for two years.

A woman salvages what she can from her damaged apartment after a rocket hit her five-story residential building in Kramatorsk, eastern UkraineA woman salvages what she can from her damaged apartment after a rocket hit her five-story residential building in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

The Ukrainian attacks on the bridge in Kherson come as the bulk of the Russian forces are stuck in the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, where they have made slow gains facing fierce Ukrainian resistance. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu inspected the troops in the east, ordering them to act more aggressively to down Ukrainian drones and prevent Ukraine’s army from shelling the areas that have been taken by Russian forces.

Russia’s ground advance has slowed, in part because Ukraine is using more effective US weapons and in part because of what Russian President Vladimir Putin has called an “operational pause”. Russia has been focusing more on aerial bombardment using long-range missiles. Ukrainian officials voiced hope that Kyiv can drain the Russian military resources in the fight for Donbas and then launch a counteroffensive to reclaim control of the Kherson region and parts of the Zaporizhzhia region the Russians seized early in the war.

With indications Ukraine is planning counterattacks to retake occupied areas, the Russian military in recent weeks has targeted the Black Sea port of Odesa and parts of southern Ukraine where its troops captured cities earlier in the war. Kherson — site of a major ship-building industry at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea near Russian-annexed Crimea — is one of several areas a US government spokesman said Russia is trying to annex. Following months of local rumours and announcements about a Russian referendum, White House national security council spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday that US intelligence officials have amassed “ample” new evidence that Russia is looking formally to annex additional Ukraine territory and could hold a “sham” public vote as soon as September.

Relatives mourn at the coffin of a soldier, codename Fanat, killed by the Russian troops in battleRelatives mourn at the coffin of a soldier, codename Fanat, killed by the Russian troops in battle (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Russia is eyeing Kherson as well as the entirety of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

“Russia is laying the groundwork to annex Ukrainian territory that it controls in direct violation of Ukraine sovereignty,” Mr Kirby said in Washington. Mr Kirby also said the White House is expected to announce more military aid for Ukraine later this week. The aid is expected to include more Himars systems, a critical weapon Ukrainian forces have been using with success in their fight to repel Russian troops.

While pressing their offensive in the Donbas, Russian forces also pummelled wide areas in the east and elsewhere across Ukraine with missile strikes and artillery barrages. Ukraine’s presidential office said at least 13 civilians were killed and a further 40 wounded by the Russian shelling across the country in a 24-hour period. On Wednesday, at least three more people died when Russia shelled the north-east city of Kharkiv with “Hurricane” salvo rocket systems, authorities said.

The victims were a 69-year-old man and his wife and a 13-year-old boy who were waiting at a bus stop.

The boy’s 15-year-old sister was injured, according to the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office.