Large explosions rock Russian military air base in Crimea

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An explosion of munitions caused a fire at a military air base in Russian-annexed Crimea Tuesday but no casualties or damage to stationed warplanes, Russia's Defense Ministry said.

Videos posted on social networks showed sunbathers fleeing a nearby beach as huge clouds of smoke from the explosions rose over the horizon.

The defense ministry emphasized that the Saki base hadn’t come under shelling. Ukrainian social networks were abuzz with speculation that Ukrainian long-range missiles could have been fired at it.

There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian authorities.

Crimea’s head Sergei Aksyonov said ambulances and medical helicopters were scrambled to the Saki air base, but wouldn’t say if there were any casualties. He added that authorities sealed off the area within a radius of five kilometers (about three miles) from the base.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and officials in Moscow have warned Ukraine that any attack on the peninsula would trigger a massive retaliation, including strikes on “decision-making centers” in Kyiv.

The Saki base allowed Russian warplanes stationed there to strike areas in Ukraine's south at short notice.

Earlier Tuesday, the office of Ukraine's president said 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 office of Ukraine's president reported Tuesday.

The Russians fired over 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 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 Zelenskyy 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," Zelenskyy 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 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 is 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 kilometers 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 about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

“In other Donbas sectors where Russia was attempting to break through, its forces have not gained more than 3 km during this 30-day period; almost certainly significantly less than planned,” the U.K. ministry said.

However, the ministry cautioned that despite the attention required in 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 past 24 hours, and some city infrastructure was damaged.

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Follow AP's coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

Susie Blann, The Associated Press