Ukraine has attacked a barracks in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, with some Ukrainian sources claiming scores of Russian casualties.
Ukraine used US-supplied Himars to destroy the military headquarters of notorious Russian private military contractor Wagner, after a Russian state television reporter seemed to give away its location by posting photos online.
A Ukrainian official on Monday confirmed Russian media reports that the base in Popasna, in eastern Ukraine, was targeted by a Ukrainian missile strike. Some estimated that as many as 1000 fighters were killed.
Officials did not comment on rumours that Yegveny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group known as “Putin’s chef”, had also been killed in the strike.
Speculation over Mr Prigozhin’s death was fuelled on Sunday by a Donetsk rebel official, who claimed a friend had said Mr Prigozhin was missing.
Footage and videos from the scene showed a bombed-out residential building that was used by mercenaries previously deployed in Syria and Mali.
According to witnesses, ten explosions were heard, although some may have been from Russian anti-aircraft systems. Ukrainian officials claimed scores of Russian dead and injured while Russia conceded a handful of casualties.
Video footage posted on social media showed what was claimed to be a Russian barracks in the southern city engulfed in a fierce blaze, with some claiming the Wagner mercenary group was using the site.
Another video showed rescue workers in ruins with several bodies visible.
The site, a former resort and hotel complex next to a church in the city known as Hunter’s Halt, was being used as a barracks with most of the casualties apparently in a mess hall when it was hit.
The strike on Melitopol – reportedly with Himars rockets – was one of several overnight on Russian bases. Explosions were also reported overnight in the Russian occupied Crimea including Sevastopol and Simferopol.
The strike on Melitopol came as all non-critical infrastructure in the Ukrainian port of Odesa was without power after Russia used Iranian-made drones on Saturday to hit two energy facilities, leaving 1.5 million people cut off from electricity.
“The situation in the Odesa region is very difficult,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.
“Unfortunately, the hits were critical, so it takes more than just time to restore electricity … It doesn’t take hours, but a few days, unfortunately.”
In Melitopol the pro-Moscow authorities said a missile attack on Saturday evening killed two people and injured 10, while the exiled Ukrainian mayor said scores of “invaders” were killed.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports of the attacks or deaths.
“Air defence systems destroyed two missiles, four reached their targets,” Yevgeny Balitsky, the Moscow-appointed governor of the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region, said on the Telegram messaging app.
He said a “recreation centre” where people were dining was destroyed in the Ukrainian attack with Himars missiles.
The exiled mayor, Ivan Fedorov, said on his Telegram channel that the attack hit a church that Russians had turned into a gathering place.
Vladimir Rogov, another Moscow-installed official in the Russian-controlled part of Zaporizhzhia, said a fire caused by the strike engulfed the recreation centre. He posted a video of a structure in flames.
Himars multiple rocket launchers have been among Ukraine’s most effective weapons in the war, delivering precision fire on hundreds of targets, including Russian command posts. On Friday, the United States said it was sending more aid to Kyiv to strengthen its air defences and defeat drones.
The city of Melitopol is seen as the next major objective for Ukrainian forces in the south of the country since Ukraine retook the major city of Kherson.
With Ukrainian forces now operating on the east bank of the Dnieper River, opposite Kherson, and with their forces now able to place Himars rocket systems on the west bank, Russian forces in the city have come under an increasing threat.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said Melitopol, a major industrial and transport centre occupied by Russia since March, was the key to south.
“All logistics linking the Russian forces on the eastern part of the Kherson region and all the way to the Russian border near Mariupol is carried out through it,” Arestovych said in a video interview on social media.
“If Melitopol falls, the entire [Russian] defence line all the way to Kherson collapses. Ukrainian forces gain a direct route to Crimea.”
There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian army about the attacks. Earlier in the day, the central command of Ukraine’s armed forces said it had been conducting strikes on Melitopol.
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