Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Powerful explosions rocked a Russian airbase in Crimea on Tuesday, sending towering plumes of smoke across the landscape in what could mean an escalation of the war in Ukraine. At least one person was killed and several others injured, authorities said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry denied that the Saki base on the Black Sea had been shelled, saying instead that munitions had been detonated there. But Ukrainian social networks were full of speculation that it was hit by Ukrainian-launched long-range missiles.
Videos posted to social media showed sunbathers on nearby beaches fleeing as huge columns of flames and smoke rose above the horizon from multiple points, accompanied by loud booms. Crimea Today News said on Telegram that witnesses reported fire on an airstrip and damage to nearby homes as a result of dozens of blasts.
Russia’s state news agency Tass quoted an unidentified source from the ministry as saying the main cause of the blasts appeared to be “violation of fire safety requirements.” The ministry said no fighter jets were damaged.
The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine sarcastically said on Facebook: “The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine cannot determine the cause of the fire, but reminds again of the fire safety rules and the ban on smoking in unspecified places.”
An aide to the president, Oleksiy Arestovych, cryptically said in his regular online interview that the blasts were either caused by a long-range weapon made in Ukraine or were the work of partisans operating in Crimea.
During the war, Russia reported numerous fires and explosions in ammunition dumps on its territory near the Ukrainian border, attributing some of these to Ukrainian strikes. The Ukrainian authorities are largely silent about the incidents.
If Ukrainian forces were actually responsible for the blasts at the airbase, it would be the first known major attack on a Russian military base in the Crimean peninsula, which the Kremlin annexed in 2014. A smaller blast last month at Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol was blamed on Ukrainian saboteurs using a makeshift drone.
Russian warplanes have used the Saki base for short-term strikes in southern Ukraine.
One person was killed, Crimea regional leader Sergei Aksyonov said. Crimea’s health authorities said nine people were injured, one of whom remained hospitalized. Others were treated for lacerations from broken glass and released.
Officials in Moscow have long warned Ukraine that any attack on Crimea would trigger massive retaliation, including strikes at “decision centers” in Kyiv.
The President of Ukraine, for his part, promised to recapture Crimea from Russia.
“This Russian war against Ukraine and against all of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – its liberation,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address on Tuesday. “Today it is impossible to say when this will happen. But we are constantly adding the necessary components to the formula for the liberation of Crimea.”
Earlier Tuesday, Ukrainian officials reported that at least three Ukrainian civilians were killed and 23 injured by Russian shelling over a 24-hour period, including an attack near the Russian-held Zaporizhia nuclear power plant.
The Russians fired over 120 rockets at the town of Nikopol across the Dnieper, Dnipropetrovsk governor Valentyn Reznichenko said. Several residential buildings and industrial plants were damaged, he said.
Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of shelling the power plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, fueling international fears of a disaster.
The governor of the region where the plant is located, Oleksandr Starukh, said Tuesday that radiation levels were normal. But he warned that an accident could spread radiation no matter which way the wind blows, carrying it to Moscow and other Russian cities.
A Russian-deployed official in the partially occupied Zaporizhia region said an air defense system at the plant was being reinforced after last week’s shelling. Evgeny Balitsky, head of the Kremlin-backed administration, told Russian state television that power lines and other damaged parts of the facility have been restored.
Ukrainians have been counterattacking in Russian-held areas of southern Ukraine in recent weeks while trying to hold off Kremlin forces in the industrial Donbass region to the east.
Also on Tuesday, a US official said Iran had agreed to supply drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information, said: “In recent weeks, Russian officials have been conducting training in Iran as part of the deal on UAV transfers from Iran to Russia.”
The White House released satellite images in mid-July showing Russians had visited an Iranian airbase to see weaponized drones. But US officials said later that month they had yet to see any evidence that Iran had supplied Russia with the drones.
Ukrainian officials said this month Iran has transferred drones to Russia and some have been used in combat.
Associated Press writer Chris Megerian in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine