Russia on Friday accused Ukraine of carrying out its first airstrike on its soil since President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24. Moscow warned that the helicopter attack on a fuel depot in the town of Belgorod would hamper negotiations.
On Friday, Russia and Ukraine resumed peace talks by video conference, a negotiator said. “We are continuing talks by video conference,” Moscow’s chief negotiator Vladimir Medinsky said on Telegram. “Our positions on Crimea and Donbass have not changed.”
The helicopters hit Rosneft’s fuel storage facility in the western town of Belgorod, around 40 kilometres from the border with Ukraine.
“There was a fire at the petrol depot because of an airstrike carried out by two Ukrainian army helicopters, which entered Russian territory at a low altitude,” Belgorod region governor Vyacheslav Gladkov wrote on messaging app Telegram.
The consequence of the accusation was swiftly made clear by the Kremlin.
“Of course, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of negotiations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, referring to ongoing peace talks.
Russia’s announcement came on the 37th day of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, with thousands killed and more than 10 million displaced in the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
The reported strike came after Moscow has repeatedly said it has destroyed Ukraine’s airforce.
Two employees at the storage facility were injured in the fire, he said.
Some 170 firefighters battled to put out the enormous blaze, which started around 6 am (0300 GMT), the emergencies ministry said.
A massive fire was raging, with black and white smoke billowing overhead, showed a video released by the ministry.
Russian energy giant Rosneft, which owns the facility, said it had evacuated its staff.
The latest talks are being held days after Moscow said it would scale back attacks on the capital Kyiv and the city of Chernigiv. But Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russia was consolidating and preparing “powerful strikes” in the country’s east and south, joining a chorus of Western assessments that Moscow troops were regrouping.
“This is part of their tactics,” said Zelenskyy in a late-night address.
“We know that they are moving away from the areas where we are beating them to focus on others that are very important… where it can be difficult for us,” he said.
In particular, he warned, the situation in the country’s south and east was “very difficult”.
“In Donbas and Mariupol, in the Kharkiv direction, the Russian army is accumulating the potential for attacks, powerful attacks,” he said.
(With inputs from agencies)