Powerful explosions rocked a Russian air base in Crimea on Tuesday, and at least five people, including a child, were wounded, authorities said.
Russia's Defense Ministry said that munitions blew up at the Saki base, and it emphasized that the installation had not been shelled. Ukrainian social networks were abuzz with speculation that it was hit by Ukrainian-fired long-range missiles.
There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian authorities.
Videos posted on social networks showed sunbathers fleeing a nearby beach as huge clouds of smoke from the explosions rose over the horizon.
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, which was annexed by the Kremlin in 2014. 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 blamed on Ukrainian saboteurs.
Crimea’s leader, Sergei Aksyonov, said that ambulances and medical helicopters were sent to the Saki air base and that the area within a radius of three miles was sealed off.
Five people were wounded, and one of them was hospitalized, said Konstantin Skorupsky, the head of Crimea’s healthcare department. He said the others were treated for cuts from shards of glass and were released.
Officials in Moscow have long warned Ukraine that any attack on Crimea would trigger massive retaliation, including strikes on “decision-making centers” in Kyiv.
The Saki base was used by Russian warplanes to strike areas in Ukraine's south at short notice.
Earlier Tuesday, the office of Ukraine's president reported that at least three Ukrainian civilians were killed and 23 others wounded by Russian shelling in 24 hours, including an attack not far from a Russian-occupied nuclear power plant.
The Russians fired more than 120 rockets from Grad multiple-rocket launchers at the southern town of Nikopol, which is across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Dnipropetrovsk Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said. Several apartment buildings and industrial facilities were damaged, he said.
Ukraine and Russia have accused each other in recent days of shelling the nuclear plant, which is the largest one in Europe, and increasing the risks of a nuclear accident.
In his nightly video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky invoked the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, which at the time was a Soviet republic. He called for new sanctions against Russia “for creating the threat” of another nuclear disaster.
“We are actively informing the world about Russian nuclear blackmail — about the shelling and mining of the Zaporizhzhia NPP facilities," Zelensky said. "Russia will not pay attention to words and concerns. ... The Chernobyl disaster is an explosion in one reactor; the Zaporizhzhia NPP is six power units.”
The Kremlin claimed Monday that Ukraine's military was attacking the plant and urged Western powers to force Kyiv to stop the activity.
A Russian-installed official in the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region said an air-defense system at the plant would be reinforced in the aftermath of last week's shelling. Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the Kremlin-backed administration, told Russian state TV on Tuesday that power lines and damaged blocks of the plant were restored.
“The plant is operating normally but, of course, with an increased degree of security,” Balitsky said.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive and Russian defensive actions in occupied areas have increasingly drawn firepower to southern Ukraine.
Drones are playing a crucial role in Ukraine’s military operations in the southern Mykolaiv region, where Russian shelling has been escalating in recent weeks.
The leader of a Ukrainian reconnaissance team named “Fireflies” — who goes by the nom de guerre “Baton" — said his unit was using drones to monitor and combat any Russian attempt to seize more territory in the region.
“This is a war of artillery and drones,” Baton told reporters, as he observed smoke rising after an attack on a Russian position a few miles away on a monitor with the feed sent from the vehicle.
Drones are the only “eyes,” Baton said.
After failing to capture Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, early in the war, the Russian military focused its strength on trying to seize all of the country's eastern Donbas region. Pro-Moscow separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the region for eight years and control some territory as self-proclaimed republics.
The British Defense Ministry said Tuesday that Russian forces had made the most progress in the past month in moving toward the town of Bakhmut — an advance limited to slightly more than six miles.
“In other Donbas sectors where Russia was attempting to break through, its forces have not gained more than 3 km [less than two miles] during this 30-day period; almost certainly significantly less than planned,” the ministry said.
The ministry cautioned that, despite the new attention to southern Ukraine, Russia had maintained attacks on Ukrainian positions in the east.
The governor of eastern Ukraine's Donetsk province, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said the Russians were trying to press their offensive in several areas. Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, came under Russian shelling four times over the last 24 hours, and some city infrastructure was damaged.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.