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Drones and shelling hit Russia’s Belgorod amid third day of border skirmishes

By Christian Edwards, Maria Kostenko, Olga Voitovych and Martin Goillandeau, CNN

(CNN) — Fighting in Russia’s Belgorod region has raged for a third day after pro-Ukrainian Russian paramilitary groups launched a cross-border assault earlier this week, while Belgorod city on Thursday suffered heavy drone strikes and shelling.

At least two people were killed and several more injured in Ukrainian strikes on the region, including a driver who died when his moving car was hit by shelling, local officials said.

Video from Belgorod showed people driving through thick smoke along a road littered with burning and overturned cars. Other footage showed buildings damaged by blasts and residents carrying their belongings as they fled along a tree-lined path amid the sounds of explosions and air raid sirens in the distance.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had destroyed eight rocket-propelled grenades fired over Belgorod, and that its air defenses had downed 11 Ukrainian drones over Belgorod and three over the neighboring Kursk region.

The strikes came after Ukraine on Wednesday launched drone strikes on at least three oil refineries deep inside Russia, shortly before President Vladimir Putin’s anticipated re-election. The trio of depots struck by Ukraine in the cities of Ryazan, Kstovo, and Kirishi are among Russia’s largest oil refineries, a Ukraine defense source told CNN.

The source said the strikes were part of Ukraine’s “well-planned strategy to decrease Russian economic potential.”

Meanwhile, skirmishes continued in villages in Belgorod and Kursk regions after pro-Ukrainian groups of Russian fighters on Tuesday mounted a cross-border attack. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the “terrorist formations” had targeted the Belgorod villages of Nekhoteevka and Spodariushino.

The Freedom for Russia Legion – a group of Russian dissidents fighting for Ukraine which has previously claimed responsibility for incursions into Russia – said it had gained full control of the village of Tyotkino in Kursk region. Two other groups – the Siberian Battalion and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK) – also claimed responsibility for the assault.

In a joint statement Thursday, the three pro-Kyiv groups – who say they aim to “liberate” Russia from its government – claimed they were continuing their operations in Russia.

“The liberation of the Russian regions from the Kremlin terrorist regime continues in these minutes. Massive strikes are now being launched against Putin’s forces in the Belgorod and Kursk regions,” the statement said.

In a Telegram video, an RDK fighter made an appeal to residents of Belgorod and Kursk.

“Your leadership has not taken any measures for your protection or evacuation, and the shelling of peaceful towns and villages of Ukraine continues as before! We are forced to return fire at military facilities in the border regions! Evacuate immediately!”

The fighter warned his group would fire at military targets in the two regions “within an hour and a half after this video,” posted around 7 a.m. local time (12 a.m. ET). It was unclear what actions were taken after this time.

Russia’s Defense Ministry later claimed to have inflicted a high number of casualties on the sabotage groups and destroyed their military equipment in what it called a “pre-emptive” action by Russian forces.

CNN could not independently verify claims by either side.

While the extent of the skirmishes in border villages is not clear, drone strikes and shelling on Belgorod have increased markedly in the past week.

In an exclusive essay for CNN last month, Ukraine’s then-army chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi argued that drones “provide the best way for Ukraine to avoid being drawn into a positional war” of static frontlines and attritional fighting.

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