Explosions hit the center of a Russian city just north of Ukraine early Sunday, killing four, officials said, in the deadliest known episode affecting civilians in Russia since the start of the war.
Russia’s Defense Ministry blamed Ukraine for the blasts in the city of Belgorod. While Ukraine has occasionally hit fuel and military targets in Russia’s border region, this is the first time that Russia has accused Ukraine of targeting a major city center on the Russian side of the border in a lethal attack.
Russian officials said Ukraine had fired three Soviet-era missiles at Belgorod that were all shot down by Russian air-defense systems. One fell to the ground in central Belgorod, causing the destruction, they said.
There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian military, but an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, Anton Gerashchenko, said he believed that Russia itself was responsible for the strike, saying it was meant to be used for propaganda. Ukraine and its international allies have repeatedly denounced Russia for hitting civilian infrastructure on a far greater scale since it invaded its neighbor in February.
The governor of the Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said four people were killed, including three Ukrainians; Russian state media said the three were a refugee family from nearby Kharkiv. Mr. Gladkov said the blasts damaged 11 apartment buildings and 39 houses, including five houses that were destroyed.
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“What is happening now is of course an extremely difficult situation,” Mr. Gladkov, in a T-shirt and jeans, told stunned residents on a Belgorod sidewalk Sunday morning, according to a video published by Russian media. “To say that I can tell you that this won’t happen again — I can’t, you know this.”
Some Russian politicians called on Sunday for immediate retribution against Ukraine, but the Kremlin has previously sought to play down any Ukrainian attacks against Russian territory — apparently worried about giving the impression that Russian civilians are at risk in a war that officials refer to as a “special military operation.”
That approach appeared to change Sunday morning, when the Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement saying that Ukraine had targeted residential neighborhoods in the cities of Belgorod and Kursk using Tu-143 drones and Tochka-U missiles in a “deliberate strike.”
Russian air-defense systems shot down all of Ukraine’s missiles, but fragments of one fell onto a house in Belgorod, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said in the statement.
“I want to emphasize that this missile attack was purposefully planned and carried out against the civilian population of Russian cities,” General Konashenkov said.
A few hours later, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, said without offering evidence that the West had prompted Kyiv to strike Russian cities “in order to push us to launch retaliatory strikes.”
“We have so far refrained from taking such steps, but we will be following developments very closely,” she said in a statement. “Those who act in this way should be aware that if provocations continue, they had better look out.”
Images posted by Russian news outlets and on social media showed smoke rising from parts of the city, with at least one house on fire.
While Belgorod residents are no longer surprised by the occasional booms of air-defense systems, Sunday was different, a local blogger, Vladimir Kornev, said in a phone interview.
“What is unique today is that this touched the center of the city, and that this has massively affected daily life,” Mr. Kornev said.
The Ukrainian authorities have said little about attacks on Russian soil. American and British officials have also said they believe Ukraine has a right to strike back against military targets in Russia. The United States has called on the Ukrainian military to not use newly supplied long-range American artillery for cross-border strikes.