Russia says it has quelled Belgorod incursion raids from Ukraine
PHOTO CAPTION: Illustrative photo — Russian service members stand guard on a road during sunset before the expected evacuation of wounded Ukrainian soldiers from the besieged Azovstal steel mill in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in Mariupol, Ukraine May 16, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
By Andrew Osborn
(Reuters) -The Russian military said on Tuesday it had routed militants who had attacked a Russian border region with armoured vehicles the previous day, killing more than 70 "Ukrainian nationalists" and pushing the remainder back into Ukraine.
In what appeared to be one of the biggest incursions from Ukraine since the war began 15 months ago, two purported anti-Kremlin armed groups employingRussians based abroad said they were responsible for the attack in Russia's Belgorod region.
The Moscow defence ministry, which blamed the Ukrainian authorities for the attack, said its forces had surrounded the enemy fighters and defeated them with "air strikes, artillery fire and active action by border units".
It over 70 Ukrainian fighters had been killed, and four armoured vehicles and five pick-up trucks destroyed.
"The remnants of the nationalists were pushed back to Ukrainian territory, where they continued to be hit by gunfire until they were completely eliminated," it added.
Reuters was unable to verify the assertions.
One of the two groups - the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) - appeared to confirm on social media that its forces had withdrawn saying: "One day we'll come to stay."
Kyiv had said it was watching the situation but "has nothing to do with it", as it did in March when one of the groups - which Moscow said consisted of far-rightRussian extremists managed by Ukrainian intelligence - mounted an incursion into another border region.
Former president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Russia's Security Council, was cited by Russia's RIA news agency as saying Kyiv's denial was "lies" and that the attackers deserved to be exterminated "like rats".
TWO ANTI-KREMLIN GROUPS CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY
Vyacheslav Gladkov, governor of the Belgorod region, had said earlier that the army and other security forces were still conducting a "counter-terrorism operation", and urged residents who had been evacuated not to return yet.
He said one elderly lady had died while being evacuated and three people were being treated for various injuries, but that no civilians had been killed.
The two groups that claimed responsibility for the incursion are the RVC and the Freedom of Russia Legion - a Ukraine-based Russian militia led by Russian opposition figure Ilya Ponomarev that says it is working inside Russia for Putin's overthrow.
The RVC, which claimed responsibility for the March incursion, was founded last August by Ukraine-based Russian nationalist Denis Kapustin, and announced on May 17 that it was joining forces with the Legion.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was conducting its "special military operation" in Ukraine in part to ensure that such incidents could not be repeated:
"This once again confirms that Ukrainian militants are continuing their activities against our country. This requires a great deal of effort from us, and these efforts are continuing."
Asked about reports that the attackers were ethnic Russians rather than ethnic Ukrainians, he said: "They are Ukrainian fighters from Ukraine. There are many ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. But they are still Ukrainian militants."
Russian investigators said they had opened a terrorism case. They said the raiders had shelled residential and administrative buildings and civil infrastructure before being expelled.
(Reporting by Reuters reporters and Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Writing by Andrew Osborn;Editing by Kevin Liffey)