Four dead after explosions in Russian town near Ukrainian border

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Explosions hit the center of a Russian town just north of Ukraine early on Sunday, killing four, officials said, in the deadliest known episode affecting civilians in Russia since the start of the war.

The Russian Defense Ministry has accused Ukraine of being responsible for the explosions in the city of Belgorod. While Ukraine has occasionally hit oil and military targets in Russia’s border region, this is the first time that Russia has accused Ukraine of targeting a major city center on the Russian side of the border during of a deadly attack.

Russian officials said Ukraine fired three Soviet-era missiles at Belgorod, all of which were shot down by Russian air defense systems. One fell to the ground in central Belgorod causing destruction, they said.

There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian military, but an adviser to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, Anton Gerashchenko, said he believed Russia itself was responsible for the strike, saying that it was intended to be used for propaganda purposes. Ukraine and its international allies have repeatedly denounced Russia for striking civilian infrastructure on a much larger scale since it invaded its neighbor in February.

Belgorod Region Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said four people were killed, including three Ukrainians; Russian state media said it was a family of refugees from the nearby city of Kharkiv. Mr Gladkov said the blasts damaged 11 apartment buildings and 39 houses, including five homes that were destroyed.

“What is happening now is of course an extremely difficult situation,” Mr. Gladkov, in a T-shirt and jeans, told stunned residents on a sidewalk in Belgorod on Sunday morning, according to video published by Russian media. “To say I can tell you it won’t happen again – I can’t, you know that.”

Some Russian politicians on Sunday called for immediate retaliation against Ukraine, but the Kremlin has previously sought to play down any Ukrainian attack on Russian territory – apparently worried about giving the impression that Russian civilians are in danger in a war that the officials call it a “special military operation.

That approach appeared to change on Sunday morning, when the Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement saying Ukraine had targeted residential neighborhoods in the cities of Belgorod and Kursk using Tu-143 drones and Tochka-U missiles in a “deliberate strike”.

Russian air defense systems shot down all of the Ukrainian missiles, but fragments of one of them fell on a house in Belgorod, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman General Igor Konashenkov said. in the press release.

“I want to emphasize that this missile attack was deliberately planned and carried out against the civilian population of Russian cities,” General Konashenkov said.

Hours later, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria V. Zakharova said without providing evidence that the West had instigated Kyiv to strike Russian cities “in order to induce us to launch retaliatory strikes “.

“We have so far refrained from taking such action, but we will follow developments very closely,” she said in a statement. “Those who act in this way should be aware that if the provocations continue, they had better beware.”

Footage published by Russian media and on social media showed smoke rising from parts of the city, with at least one house on fire.

While Belgorod residents are no longer surprised by occasional booms in air defense systems, Sunday was different, local blogger Vladimir Kornev said in a phone interview.

“What is unique today is that it hit the center of the city and it massively affected daily life,” Mr Kornev said.

The Ukrainian authorities have said little about the attacks on Russian soil. US and UK officials have also said they believe Ukraine has the right to retaliate against military targets in Russia. The United States has called on the Ukrainian army not to use the newly supplied long-range American artillery for cross-border strikes.

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