An explosion shook the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol early Monday, sending plumes of smoke into the air just outside the office of the region’s pro-Kremlin chief, according to Ukrainian and Russian officials.
It was unclear who was responsible for the blast, which appeared to target the region’s proxy leader Yevgeny Balitsky, according to both Ukrainian and Russian officials. If Ukrainian partisans were behind the explosion, it would be one of the most brutal insurgents since Russian forces occupied the southern Ukraine city in the early days of the war.
The former mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Federov, who was himself kidnapped by Russian troops and later released in a prisoner swap before going into exile, said people he still had contact with in the city were trying to determine if anyone was injured. had fallen into the attack and who would have led it.
The pro-Kremlin authorities in the city blamed Ukrainian partisans for the explosion, which they say had injured two people.
“This morning there was a terrorist attack that aimed to destabilize the peaceful life of the city,” the Russian-installed Melitopol authorities said in a statement to Telegram. According to the statement, at 07:40 a car full of explosives exploded in the city center, injuring two humanitarian aid volunteers, a 28-year-old woman and a 25-year-old man.
“The Ukrainian government continues its war against the civilian population and urban infrastructure,” the statement said, adding that an investigation is underway.
The Russian Commission of Inquiry, the FBI’s equivalent, also issued a statement saying it would investigate the explosion, which was blamed on “Ukrainian saboteurs” and which went off while humanitarian aid was being distributed. Three people were injured, including two volunteers who were hospitalized.
It was not possible to independently verify the details of the attack.
Federov, the former mayor, said whoever was responsible for the blast, the attack underscored the level of local opposition Russia would continue to face.
“The ground will burn” in Melitopol, he said, until the Russians “leave the city”.
The attack comes as the Ukrainian military is on a counter-offensive to reclaim territory in the neighboring Kherson region.
Large parts of the provinces of Kherson and Zaporizka – where Melitopol is the second largest city – were occupied by Russian troops at the beginning of the war. While major cities in the region were spared the widespread devastation wreaking havoc on population centers in northern and eastern Ukraine, the Russian occupation has become more repressive over time, according to refugee witnesses.
There are no accurate estimates of the population remaining in the Russian-controlled territory in the two regions, and the road to escape is becoming increasingly treacherous. Ukrainian officials estimate that only about half of the peacetime population is left, which could amount to more than a million people.
As reports rise of Russian soldiers kidnapping local officials and other potential threats to the Russian occupation, there has been a corresponding increase in reports of partisan violence.
Serhii Kuzan, head of Ukraine’s Center for Security and Cooperation, which specializes in military analysis, told Radio Liberty on Friday that the resistance movement in the occupied territories had grown and, although largely autonomous, was supported by the state.
“It all started with hundreds of informants. Now it is thousands and thousands of people in every area who are carrying out a very different range of actions ranging from informing our armed forces about the movement of enemy equipment, enemy personnel, including leadership, the movement of patrols and more,” he said.
He said partisans attacked Russian warehouses and Russian patrols and also targeted “the occupying top leadership, even the General Staff, and of course associates.”
Those claims were impossible to independently verify.