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Blasts, raging fire wreck 'prestige' bridge vital to Putin's plans

A fireball erupted on a bridge to the Crimean peninsula, a prestige project of Russian President Vladimir Putin, after a massive blast hit a fuel train early on Saturday.

A part of the 19km Kerch Strait Bridge was seen to have collapsed into the sea, hitting the primary supply route for Russian troops fighting in the south of Ukraine.

A truck exploded on the span's roadway, causing seven fuel tanks on the train to ignite as it crossed the bridge, the state-run Tass news service reported.

Other Russian news agencies quoted the national anti-terrorism committee as saying it was a car bomb.

Mr Vladimir Konstantinov, head of the Russian-installed regional parliament in Crimea, blamed the blast on "Ukrainian vandals".

Videos showed intense flames and a large plume of black smoke billowing off the railroad section of the bridge. A part of the road traffic section, which runs parallel, appeared to have collapsed.

A pro-Ukrainian Telegram channel, Ria-Melitopol, posted a video showing that two sections of the bridge were damaged, suggesting sabotage or a strike on the bridge, not an accident.

The bridge built at a cost of US$3.7 billion (S$5.3 billion) was an important symbol of the claims that Mr Putin makes to the peninsula, which his forces seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Mr Putin presided over the opening of the bridge in 2018, personally driving a truck across.

Russia said it was opening a criminal probe into the blast.

"Dropping a bridge span like this would take a lot of 'bang' (explosives) and a good demolition design," military analyst Mick Ryan said on Twitter. "The hardest bridges to drop are reinforced concrete ones like this."

The bridge is strategically important for Russia's army as a route for supplies of fuel, ammunition and weaponry into the war zone in southern Ukraine.

While Moscow can resupply Crimea by boat and through occupied southern Ukrainian areas, "it makes holding Melitopol even more important for the Russians", said Mr Ryan.

Ukrainian officials did not immediately comment on the cause of the fire, which occurred the day after Mr Putin celebrated his 70th birthday.

Mr Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the damage to the bridge "the beginning," without indicating involvement from Kyiv's side.

Senior officials in Kyiv have said in the past that the bridge would be a legitimate target for a Ukrainian strike.

"It is an illegal construction and the main gateway for supplying the Russian army in Crimea," Mr Podolyak said in August. "These kinds of objects must be destroyed."

A senior Ukrainian military official did not deny that Ukrainian forces were behind the attack but would not confirm it.

"All I can say is that an echelon with fuel intended to supply occupation forces in the south of Ukraine was passing over the bridge from Krasnodar Krai," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to speak to the news media.

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