By PAUL BYRNE and JOANNA KOZLOWSKA
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian authorities on Saturday reported shooting down Ukrainian drones in Crimea, while Ukrainian officials said Russian forces pressed ahead with efforts to seize one of the few cities in eastern Ukraine not already under their control and kept up their strikes on communities in the north and south.
In Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, Russian authorities said local air defenses shot down a drone above the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It was the second drone incident at the headquarters in three weeks and followed explosions at a Russian airfield and ammunition depot on the peninsula this month.
An aide to Crimea’s governor, Oleg Kryuchkov, also said Saturday that “attacks by small drones” triggered air-defense systems in western Crimea. He did not elaborate. Russia considers Crimea to be Russian territory now, especially after building a huge bridge to the peninsula from the Russian mainland, but Ukrainian officials have never accepted its annexation by Russia.
Mikhail Razvozhaev, the governor of Sevastopol, the Crimean city where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based, said the drone that was shot down there fell on the roof of the fleet headquarters and did not cause casualties or major damage.
But the incident underlined Russian forces’ vulnerability in Crimea. A drone attack on the Black Sea headquarters on July 31 injured five people and forced the cancellation of observances of Russia’s Navy Day.
This week, a Russian ammunition depot in Crimea was hit by an explosion. Last week, nine Russian warplanes were reported destroyed at an airbase on Crimea.
Ukrainian authorities have stopped short of publicly claiming responsibility. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alluded to Ukrainian attacks behind enemy lines after the blasts in Crimea, which Russia has blamed on “sabotage.”
Meanwhile, fighting in southern Ukrainian areas just north of Crimea has stepped up in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces try to drive Russian forces out of cities they have occupied since early in the six-month-old war.
Russian shelling shelling injured at least nine people and damaged houses and an apartment block in the town of Voznesensk in the Mykolaiv region, the region’s governor Vitaliy Kim said Saturday.
A Ukrainian airstrike hit targets in Melitopol, the largest Russian-controlled city in the Zaporizhzhia region, 100 kilometers (65 miles) north of Crimea, according to Ukrainian and Russia-installed local officials.
Ukraine’s military General Staff said Saturday that intensified combat took place around Bakhmut, a small city whose capture would enable Russia to threaten the two largest remaining Ukrainian-held cities in the eastern Donbas region.
Bakhmut for weeks has been a key target of Moscow’s eastern offensive as the Russian military tries to complete a months-long campaign to conquer all of the Donbas, where pro-Moscow separatists have proclaimed two republics that Russia recognized as sovereign states at the beginning of the war.
A local Ukrainian official reported sustained fighting Saturday near four settlements on the border of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, which together make up the contested Donbas region. Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai did not name the settlements. Russian forces overran nearly all of Luhansk last month and since then have focused on capturing Ukrainian-held areas of Donetsk.
Russian shelling killed seven civilians Friday in Donetsk province, including four in Bakhmut, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote Saturday on Telegram. Taking Bakhmut would give the Russians room to advance on the province’s main Ukrainian-held cities, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Sloviansk and Kramatorsk were targeted Friday, along with the Kharkiv region to the north, home to Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Neither Moscow nor Kyiv commented have commented on the Melitopol airstrike, but the head of the Russia-installed administration in Melitopol, Galina Danilchenko, confirmed Saturday that the city had come under Ukrainian fire.
The Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Ferodov, said local Ukrainian authorities were gathering information on the strike.
“Tonight, there were powerful explosions in Melitopol, which the whole city heard,” Ferodov said. “According to preliminary data, (it was) a precise hit on one of the Russian military bases, which the Russian fascists are trying to restore for the umpteenth time in the airfield area.”
Ukrainian officials have indicated plans for a counteroffensive to win back occupied areas in the south while Russia had most of its focus on the east.
Local authorities reported renewed Russian shelling overnight along a broad front, including of the northern Kharkiv and Sumy regions, which border Russia, as well as of the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region and Mykolaiv.
Kozlowska reported from London.
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