By SUSIE BLANN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces struck and seriously damaged a bridge Wednesday that is key for supplying Russian troops in southern Ukraine, a regional official said, as Russian shelling killed civilians including a 13-year-old boy waiting at a bus stop in the embattled country’s northeast.
Moscow, meanwhile, made it clear that it wants to consolidate territorial gains it has made in Ukraine since invading on Feb. 24.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told state-controlled RT television and the RIA Novosti news agency in an interview published Wednesday that Russia has expanded the scope of its “special military operation” from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine — where Russia-backed separatist have been fighting since 2014 — to include the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and other territories.
He noted that when Russia and Ukraine in March discussed a possible deal to end the hostilities, “our readiness to accept the Ukrainian proposal was based on the geography of March 2022.”
“Now it’s a different geography,” he said, as he also repeated earlier claims by Moscow that the U.S. and Britain were expanding the ostilities.
Ukraine sought to loosen Russia’s grip on the southern Kherson region by striking a strategically important bridge.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Moscow-backed temporary administration in the region, said the Ukrainian military struck the Antonivskyi Bridge, which crosses the Dnieper River, using U.S.-supplied HIMARS multiple rocket launchers.
The 1.4-kilometer (0.9-mile) bridge is the main river crossing in the Kherson region. Knocking it out would make it hard for the Russian military to keep supplying its forces in the region amid repeated Ukrainian attacks.
“The bridge wasn’t closed, traffic across it is still continuing, but the situation is serious,” Stremousov said, according to Interfax.
The head of the Moscow-appointed Kherson administration, Vladimir Saldo, said in a video message that passenger vehicles were allowed to continue driving across the bridge but truck traffic was halted to allow quick repairs. He noted that trucks could cross the river using a dam 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.
Wednesday’s shelling of the bridge was the second in as many days.
Early in the war, Russian troops quickly overran the Kherson region just north of the Crimean Peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014. They have faced Ukrainian counterattacks, but have largely held their ground.
Kherson — site of a major ship-building industry at the confluence of the Dnieper River and the Black Sea near Russian-annexed Crimea — is one of several areas a U.S. government spokesman said Russia is trying to annex.
Following months of local rumors and announcements about a Russian referendum, White House national security council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that U.S. intelligence officials have amassed “ample” new evidence that Russia is looking formally to annex additional Ukraine territory and could hold a “sham” public vote as soon as September. Russia is eyeing Kherson as well as the entirety of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
“Russia is laying the groundwork to annex Ukrainian territory that it controls in direct violation of Ukraine sovereignty,” Kirby said in Washington.
Kirby also said the White House is expected to announce more military aid for Ukraine later this week. The aid is expected to include more HIMARS systems, a critical weapon Ukrainian forces have been using with success.
Lavrov claimed that the U.S. was preventing Ukraine from engaging in talks on a possible settlement with Russia.
“They are keeping them from any constructive steps and not only pumping in weapons but forcing them to use those weapons in an increasingly risky way,” Lavrov said.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the crippling economic impact of the war on Ukraine, its government said the country will ask investors to allow it to postpone foreign debt payments for two years.
The Ukrainian attacks on the bridge in Kherson come as the bulk of the Russian forces are stuck in the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas where they have made slow gains facing fierce Ukrainian resistance.
Russia has been focusing more on aerial bombardment using long-range missiles, hitting targets across all parts of Ukraine and in the process killing hundreds of civilians.
With indications that Ukraine is planning counterattacks to try to retake occupied areas in Kherson and part of the Zaporizhzhia region, the Russian military in recent weeks has targeted the key Black Sea port of Odesa and parts of southern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s presidential office said at least 13 civilians were killed and a further 40 wounded by the Russian shelling across the country in a 24-hour period.
On Wednesday, at least three more people died when Russia shelled the northeastern city of Kharkiv with “Hurricane” salvo rocket systems, authorities said. The victims were a 69-year-old man and his wife and a 13-year-old boy who were waiting at a bus stop. The boy’s 15-year-old sister was injured according to the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office.
In other developments:
— An Associated Press investigation has found that many refugees from Ukraine are forced to embark on a surreal trip into Russia, subjected along the way to human rights abuses, stripped of documents and left confused and lost about where they are.
— The European Union’s head office proposed that member states cut their gas use by 15% over the coming months to ensure that any full Russian cutoff of natural gas supplies to the bloc will not fundamentally disrupt industries next winter. While the initial cuts would be voluntary cuts, the Commission also asked for the power to impose mandatory reductions across the bloc in the event of an EU-wide alert in the event of a severe gas shortage or exceptionally high demand.
__ Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday Turkey wants to tie down Russia and Ukraine to a written agreement this week and enable millions of tons of Ukraine’s grain to be shipped from the Black Sea and Russian grain and fertilizers to be sent to world markets. Some 22 million tons of desperately needed grain and other products have been trapped in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports due to the war.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine