At least seven people were reportedly killed by a Ukrainian missile strike on a large ammunition store in the town of Nova Kakhovka, in Russia-occupied Kherson, in a strike attributed to recently acquired US weapons.
The claims of fatalities were made by the Russian-installed administration in the town and could not be immediately verified, though footage on social media showed a large explosion lighting up the night, burning ammunition and towering smoke.
The explosion hit a warehouse close to a key railway line and a dam on the Dnipro River. Imaging from Nasa’s Firms global fire tracking system showed a number of secondary blazes in buildings around the initial blast site.
Kyiv said it had launched artillery barrages that a destroyed a Russian arms depot, hitting artillery, armoured vehicles “and a warehouse with ammunition”, and in addition carried out a “special operation” to free military captives in the Moscow-controlled region. Russian-backed authorities accused Ukraine of damaging civilian infrastructure.
Pro-Russia officials and some Ukrainian commentators were quick to suggest that the explosion was the result of a strike by Ukraine’s newly supplied US Himars missile system. A number of recent strikes on ammunition warehouses and Russian command centres have been attributed to Himars.
Officials from the Russian-installed administration said the strike destroyed warehouses containing saltpetre, a chemical compound that can be used to make fertiliser or gunpowder.
In Donetsk oblast, Ukraine’s state emergency service continued to dig for survivors from a Russian strike on an apartment block in Chasiv Yar, where the death toll has reached 38 .
According to rescuers, the latest body to be recovered was that of a child. Emergency services continue to dig for five survivors trapped under the collapsed five-storey building.
The overnight strike in Nova Kakhovka was the fourth time in recent days that Ukraine has hit warehousing in the town. There are expectations of a widespread Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south, and some analysts have suggested Ukraine had now destroyed both of the major Russian arms warehouses servicing Kherson city.
Russian forces largely occupy Kherson province, which lies next to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. Russian forces seized the province’s main city, also called Kherson, on 3 March. It was the first major city to fall after the start of Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine in late February.
Vladimir Leontyev, the head of the Russian-installed Kakhovka district military-civilian administration, said seven people “for sure” had died in the strike. “There are still many people under the rubble. The injured are being taken to the hospital, but many people are blocked in their apartments and houses,” Leontyev said in quotes carried by the Russian state news agency Tass.
The deployment and effectiveness of the Himars system has been causing increasing consternation among pro-Russia figures and military bloggers in Russia. Losses from the system have mounted as Russian missile defences in Ukraine appear to be struggling to counter launches.
Alexander Sladkov, a war reporter for the state-run broadcaster Rossiya 1, wrote on Telegram this week that Ukraine was successfully attacking Russian command centres. “Ukrainian missiles and artillery have struck decision-making centres several times, with results,” he wrote. “The centres are small but important.”
The Moscow Times quoted the Russian state television journalist Andrei Rudenko as saying Ukrainian Himars attacks were probably behind explosions at ammunition stores in the towns of Shakhtarsk and Torez. “Strong fires and explosions. The situation is horrible,” he said.
While Ukraine only has a handful of the systems, Himars does appear currently to be having a disproportionate impact for the number of launchers available.
Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University, said the strike on Nova Kakhovka should be “worrying” for Russian forces. “Either way this attack reveals a great deal of where we are,” he wrote on Twitter. “The Russians had to know such an attack was high priority for the Ukrainians, but either could not or would not adjust. For them it’s extremely worrying.”
The Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank that monitors the conflict, reported that Russian forces were “continuing to focus on defensive operations along the entire southern axis.”
Serhiy Khlan, a former adviser to the Kherson provincial governor, said Russian forces had strengthened security measures, “preparing for urban warfare in case a Ukrainian counteroffensive does reach Kherson”.
Ukraine has said it expects a fresh assault by Russian ground forces.
Meanwhile the Russian-backed self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine said the results of appeals against death sentences handed out to two Britons and a Moroccan who were fighting with the Ukrainian armed forces would be known within a month. Ukraine and western countries have said the men are prisoners of war, entitled to protection under the Geneva conventions.