ODESSA, Ukraine — Explosions rocked Odessa early Sunday as Russia said its missiles struck an oil refinery and fuel storage facilities — sending thick dark plumes of smoke into the sky in the first major strikes on the strategic Black Sea port city’s downtown.

The strikes come as Russian troops appear to be regrouping and shifting their focus away from the capital, Kyiv, near where Ukrainian forces are recapturing territory, as the war grinds into its 39th day. As Moscow’s forces seek to make gains in the country’s south and east, cities on the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea are coming into renewed focus, setting the stage for a new phase in the conflict that military analysts warn could be long and bloody.

Odessa has long been considered a target for the Russian military because it is an economically vital port, but with Moscow’s ground forces unable to advance past Mykolaiv, about 70 miles east, Odessa has largely been spared from attacks. Local businesses and even the zoo have reopened in the past week.

Britain’s Defense Ministry said Sunday that Russia’s navy is strategically blockading the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to prevent Ukraine from rearming. In another battered port city, Mariupol, Ukrainians will also face “difficult” fights ahead, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky warned, as Moscow vies for a strategic victory that would free up thousands of troops to fight elsewhere.

Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that high-precision sea and air missiles had destroyed an oil refinery and three fuel storage facilities near Odessa. The claim could not be immediately verified independently by The Washington Post.

Ukrainian officials said the fire had been extinguished but the depot had been destroyed and could “no longer function” following Sunday’s attack.

In a statement posted on Telegram early Sunday, the Odessa City Council said the city was attacked from the air and that “some missiles were shot down by air defense.” Fires were reported in some areas, and residents were advised to close their windows and stay away while emergency responders carried out their work.

Fuel depots across the country have been widely targeted by Russia since President Vladimir Putin invaded in late February.

Last week, in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Russian missiles “completely destroyed” a fuel depot, according to Ukrainian officials. Russia also targeted an oil depot in Dnipro, the Kyiv Independent reported on March 30.

Russia accused Ukraine of targeting a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod — an allegation Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has neither confirmed or denied.

“Fortunately, no one was injured. Houses were damaged, glass was broken, roofs were destroyed,” Odessa Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov told public broadcaster Suspilne. “Communal services are already at the site. We will provide all necessary assistance to those whose homes are damaged. The situation is under control.”

Zelensky had made an emotional plea hours earlier for Western nations to send more missile defense systems and planes to guard against Moscow’s bombardments from the air: “Every single Russian missile that has hit our cities, and every bomb that has been thrown onto our people, our children, will be a black mark on the history of those who made that decision — the decision on whether or not to assist Ukraine with modern weaponry.”

Although military analysts think the next phase of the 39-day-old war will primarily be a battle for southeastern Ukraine, that doesn’t rule out attacks on other areas, especially from the air.

And if the southern port city of Mariupol — where Moscow has already wreaked massive destruction and deprivation — falls, “it could free up Russian logistics and manpower along the southern axis of advance,” wrote Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va.

Source Odessa rocked by explosions as Russia claims strikes on oil refinery, fuel depots (msn.com)

By block head

Block Head is a blockchain journalist.