By SUSIE BLANN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces on Wednesday damaged a bridge that is key to supplying Russian troops in southern Ukraine, where Russia’s foreign minister said Moscow is trying to consolidate its territorial gains.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told state-controlled RT television and the RIA Novosti news agency that Russia has expanded its “special military operation” from eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces to include the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions and other captured territories.
Lavrov’s remarks and the Ukrainian missile attack on the strategically important Kherson region bridge indicated the nearly five-month war would likely broaden again after unfolding mostly in eastern Ukraine since April.
Russia’s top diplomat noted that when Russia and Ukraine in March discussed a possible deal to end the fighting, “our readiness to accept the Ukrainian proposal was based on the geography of March 2022.”
“Now it’s a different geography,” Lavrov said, repeating Moscow’s earlier claims that the United States and Britain were encouraging Ukraine to expand the hostilities.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 and quickly seized some territory, but withdrew from the capital region and the north at the end of March to concentrate on seizing Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Moscow separatists have controlled much of the territory since 2014.
As Russian forces gained control of more cities in the two eastern provinces, which together make up Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region, Ukrainian officials mentioned plans for a counter-offensive to retake Russian-occupied areas in the south.
The Ukrainian strike on the Dnipro River bridge appeared to be intended to loosen Russia’s grip on the southern Kherson region. Wednesday’s attack on the bridge was the second in as many days.
Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of a temporary, Russian-installed administration running the region, said the Ukrainian military struck the Antonivskyi Bridge, 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 there.
Stremousov said that because of the bridge damage, pontoon crossings would be constructed over the river, which is also known as the Dnieper.
The head of the Moscow-appointed Kherson administration, Vladimir Saldo, said in a video message that passenger vehicles could continue driving across the bridge but truck traffic was halted. He said trucks could cross the river using a dam 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.
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 Dnipro River and the Black Sea near Russian-annexed Crimea — is one of several areas a U.S. government spokesman said Russia is trying to take over now.
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 and Zaporizhzhia, as well as the entirety of the Donbas region.
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,” the Russian minister said.
Russian-installed authorities claimed Wednesday that Ukraine’s military had used drones to attack the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest.
Vladimir Rogov, a local Moscow-appointed official, said three Ukrainian attack drones had hit the plant’s territory with explosives but not its reactor area. All normal operations continued, and no release of radiation was detected, he said.
Russia’s state news agency Tass reported 11 plant workers were injured, four seriously.
Ukrainian authorities, who have over the past months reported Russian missiles almost hitting the plant, did not immediately comment on the report.
The bulk of Russia’s forces are stuck fighting in the Donbas region, where they have made slow gains facing fierce Ukrainian resistance. The Russian military has used long-range missiles to strike targets across all parts of Ukraine, in the process killing hundreds of civilians.
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 between Tuesday and Wednesday.
On Wednesday, at least three more people died when Russia bombarded the northeastern city of Kharkiv with Hurricane salvo rocket systems, authorities said. The victims, who were waiting at a bus stop, included a 69-year-old man, his wife and a 13-year-old boy.
The boy’s 15-year-old sister was injured, according to the Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office. Video showed the boy’s father, apparently in a state of shock, praying above his son’s uncovered body and holding his hand.
Russia has repeatedly accused Ukraine during the war of launching attacks across the border in Russian territory. Another such report came Wednesday, when Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram that Ukrainian forces had fired on two border villages.
Most villagers were previously evacuated under a state of emergency, but , Gladkov said the latest attack killed a man, and damaged homes and a village club.
In other developments Wednesday:
— 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.
—U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a gathering of defense leaders Wednesday that Ukraine has been using U.S-supplied rocket launchers effectively on the battlefield. Austin said the Pentagon plans to provide the Ukrainian military with four more High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers, bringing the total to 16. The truck-mounted HIMARS launchers fire GPS-guided missiles that can reach targets up to 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.
— Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, appealed to American lawmakers during a speech at the U.S. Capitol for more air defense systems to protect her country’s skies. In her unsparing Capitol address, Zelenska shared images of blood-stained baby strollers and small crumpled bodies left after Russian missile attacks.
— 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 will not cause unmanageable winter disruptions. While the initial cuts would be voluntary, the European Commission also asked for the power to impose mandatory reductions across the bloc in the event of a severe gas shortage or exceptionally high demand.
— In a sign of the crippling economic impact of the war, the Ukrainian government said it would ask investors to allow the country to postpone foreign debt payments for two years. Leaders of a group of creditors said they agreed to the delay and urged bondholders to do the same.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine