KYIV - Ukraine said on Tuesday it had carried out a long-range rocket strike against Russian forces and military equipment in southern Ukraine, territory it says it is planning to retake in a counter-offensive using hundreds of thousands of troops.
The strike hit an ammunition dump in the town of Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region and killed 52 people, Ukraine's military said. It came after Washington supplied Ukraine with advanced HIMARS mobile artillery systems which Kyiv says its forces are using with growing efficiency.
The town's Russia-installed authorities gave a different version of events. The Russian TASS news agencies reported they said that at least seven people had been killed in the attack and around 70 injured. A Russian-backed official in Kherson said at least seven people had been killed and that civilians and civilian infrastructure had been hit.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield accounts.
The area Ukraine struck is one that Russia seized after launching on Feb. 24 what Moscow called "a special military operation" in its fellow ex-Soviet neighbour and is of strategic importance with Black Sea access, a once thriving agricultural industry and a location just north of Russian-annexed Crimea.
Ukrainian government officials have spoken of efforts to marshal up to a million troops and of their aim to recapture southern parts of the country now under Russian control.
"Based on the results of our rocket and artillery units, the enemy lost 5️2 (people), an Msta-B howitzer, a mortar and seven armoured and other vehicles, as well as an ammunition depot in Nova Kakhovka," Ukraine's southern military command said in statement.
Unverified videos posted on social media showed smoke and sparks, followed by an immense fireball erupting into the night sky. Images released by Russian state media showed a wasteland covered in rubble and the remains of buildings.
An official from the Russian-backed local administration said that Ukraine had used HIMARS missiles and that they had destroyed warehouses containing saltpetre, a chemical compound which can be used to make fertilizer or gunpowder. A large explosion resulted. Russia's TASS news agency reported later that the fires were extinguished.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the kind of weapon used.
"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," Vladimir Leontyev, head of the Russia-installed Kakhovka District military-civilian administration, was quoted by TASS as saying. He said that warehouses, shops, a pharmacy, gas stations and a church had been hit.
The conflict has blocked access to Ukraine's grain and cooking oils, exacerbating a global food crisis. More than 20 million tonnes of grain are stuck in silos at the key Black Sea port of Odesa.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said military delegations from Ukraine, Russia and Turkey would meet U.N. officials in Istanbul on Wednesday to discuss a possible deal to resume safe exports of Ukrainian grain.
"We are working hard indeed but there is still a way to go," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters.
As Russia blockades Ukraine's main Black Sea ports, Ukraine Deputy Infrastructure Minister Yuriy Vaskov said grain shipments via the Danube River had increased with the reopening of the Bystre canal, which provides access to small inland river ports.
Ukraine expects monthly grain exports to rise by 500,000 tonnes as a result, Vaskov said. Ukraine is also negotiating with Romania and the European Commission about increasing shipments through the Sulina canal, he said.
Russia has accused Ukraine of shelling its own people in territory where it has lost control. Ukraine says it evacuates as many people as possible from areas seized by Russian forces in what it and the West have cast as an attempted imperial-style land grab by Moscow.
Kyiv and the West say Russia's own strikes have been indiscriminate, killing civilians and levelling city districts.
Moscow denies targeting civilians but many Ukrainian population centres have been left in ruins as Europe's biggest conflict since World War Two grinds towards the five-month mark.
The U.N. human rights office said on Tuesday that 5,024 civilians had been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began, adding that the real toll was likely much higher.
Russia has tried to introduce the rouble in Kherson and is offering Russian passports to locals. Russian-installed officials say they also plan to hold a referendum on the region becoming part of Russia but have not yet set a date.
Ukraine is itself bracing for what it expects will be a massive new Russian offensive in the east where Moscow says it is determined to take control of all of the industrial Donbas region.
Russian forces, which earlier this month completed the capture of Luhansk province in the Donbas, have for weeks been shelling parts of neighbouring Donetsk province.
Regional Donetsk governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said there was a significant buildup of Russian troops, particularly in the Bakhmut and Siversky areas, and around Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
The entire front line in the region was under constant shelling as Russian troops tried to break through but were being repelled, he said.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Andrew Osborn, Nick Macfie and Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Mark Heinrich and Aurora Ellis)