Pokrovsk, Ukraine (AFP) – Russian and Ukrainian forces traded blows in close combat Sunday in an eastern Ukrainian city as Moscow’s soldiers, backed by intense bombing, tried to gain a strategic foothold to invade the region. The Ukrainian leader made a rare visit to the front lines of Kharkiv, where he sought to assess the strength of the country’s defenses.
Ukrainian officials said that Russian forces stormed Severodonetsk after trying unsuccessfully to encircle the strategic city, creating a situation that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described as “indescribably difficult”. He said that relentless Russian artillery bombardment destroyed the town’s vital infrastructure and damaged 90% of its buildings.
“The capture of Severodonetsk is an essential task of the occupying forces,” Zelensky said, adding that the Russians do not care about casualties.
The mayor said the fighting cut off electricity and mobile phone service and forced the humanitarian relief center to close due to the dangers.
The deteriorating conditions raised fears that Severodonetsk could become the next city of Mariupol, a city on the Sea of Azov that spent nearly three months under a Russian siege before the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered.
The city of Severodonetsk, located 143 kilometers (89 miles) south of the Russian border, has emerged in recent days as the epicenter of Moscow’s bid to control the Donbass industrial region in eastern Ukraine. Russia also intensified its efforts to take control of the nearby city of Lysekhansk, as civilians rushed to flee Constant bombardment.
The two eastern cities straddle the strategically important Siverskiy Donetsk River. It is the last of the major Ukrainian-controlled areas of Luhansk Province, which together with the neighboring Donetsk region make up the Donbass.
Meanwhile, Zelensky visited soldiers in Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, where Ukrainian fighters drove Russian forces from nearby positions several weeks ago.
“I feel boundless pride in our defenders. Every day, risking their lives, fighting for the freedom of Ukraine,” Zelensky wrote in the Telegram messaging app.
Russia continued to bombard the northeastern city from afar, and explosions were heard shortly after Zelensky’s visit. Bombing and airstrikes have destroyed more than 2,000 apartment buildings in the city since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, according to the region’s governor, Oleh Sinihopov.
In a video address later on Sunday, Zelensky praised regional officials in Kharkiv, but said he had fired the regional head of the country’s top security agency, the State Security Administration unit, over his poor performance. In the wider Kharkiv region, Russian forces still control about a third of the territory, Zelensky said.
After failing to capture Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Russia is focused on occupying parts of Donbas not already controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Serhiy Haiday, governor of Luhansk province, said the continued Russian bombing had created a “dangerous” situation in Lysechansk. “There are dead and wounded,” he wrote on Telegram. He added that a civilian was killed and four wounded on Saturday after a Russian shell fell on a high-rise apartment building.
But he said some supply and evacuation routes in Luhansk were operating on Sunday. He claimed that the Russians retreated “with losses” around a village near Severodonetsk but launched air raids on another nearby river village.
Civilians who reached the eastern city of Pokrovsk, 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Lysekhansk, said they held out as best they could before fleeing the Russian advance.
Yana Skakova choked back with tears as she described leaving with her two sons, 18 months and 4 years old, while her husband stayed behind to look after their home and animals. The family was among 18 people who lived in a basement for the past two and a half months until police told them on Friday it was time to vacate.
“None of us wanted to leave our city,” she said. “But for the sake of these little kids, we decided to leave.”
Oksana, 74, who was afraid to give her last name, was evacuated from Lyschansk by a team of foreign volunteers with her 86-year-old husband.
“I’m going somewhere, I don’t know where,” she cried. “Now I am a beggar without happiness. Now I have to ask for alms. It would be better to kill me.”
The mayor of Severodonetsk, Oleksandr Stryuk, said there was fighting at the city’s bus station on Saturday. The remaining residents of the city, which had a pre-war population of about 100,000, risked being bombed just to get water from six wells, and there was no electricity or mobile phone service. Stryuk estimates that 1,500 civilians have been killed in the city since the war began, due to Russian attacks as well as from lack of medicine or treatment.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, has questioned the Kremlin’s strategy of assembling a massive military effort to seize Severodonetsk, saying it was too costly for Russia and would bring little revenue.
“When the battle of Sieverodonetsk ends, regardless of which side controls the city, the Russian offensive on the operational and strategic levels will likely have reached its climax, giving Ukraine the opportunity to resume its counterattacks at the operational level to push the Russian forces back,” the institute said at the time. late on Saturday.
In Mariupol, on Sunday, an aide to the mayor of Ukraine claimed that after Russian forces took control of the entire city, they collected the bodies of the dead inside a supermarket. The aide, Petro Andryushenko, posted a photo on the Telegram messaging app of what he described as a “corpse dump” in the occupied city. Bodies were shown stacked next to closed supermarket tables.
Here, the Russians bring up the bodies of the dead that have been washed from their graves during attempts to restore the water supply, and partially exhume the bodies. They write that they are throwing them away like trash.
It was not immediately possible to verify his claim.
Regions across Ukraine were attacked overnight by renewed Russian airstrikes. On the ground in the eastern Donetsk region, fighters fought back and forth for control of villages and cities.
The Ukrainian army reported heavy fighting around Donetsk, the provincial capital, as well as Lyman in the north, a small city that serves as a major railway hub in the Donetsk region. On Saturday, Moscow claimed that it had captured LymanHowever, Ukrainian authorities said its fighters were still taking part in the fighting in parts of the city.
“The enemy is strengthening its units,” the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said. “It’s trying to gain a foothold in the area.”
Mazalan reported from Kyiv. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and AP journalists around the world contributed.
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