Ukraine says Russian troops ‘storm’ Donbass city, in close combat with defenders

Russian and Ukrainian troops engaged in close combat in a town in eastern Ukraine on Sunday as soldiers from Moscow, backed by heavy shelling, attempted to gain a strategic foothold to conquer the region in the face of resistance fierce Ukrainian.

Ukrainian regional officials reported that Russian forces “stormed” Severodonetsk after unsuccessfully trying to encircle the city. The fighting knocked out electricity and mobile phone service, and a humanitarian relief center could not operate due to the danger, the mayor said.

Severodonetsk, located about 140 kilometers south of the Russian border, has emerged in recent days as the epicenter of Moscow’s quest to conquer all of Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region. Russia also stepped up its efforts to take nearby Lysychansk, where civilians rushed to escape the persistent shelling.

The two eastern towns lie on the strategically important Siverskyi Donets River. These are the last large areas under Ukrainian control in the province of Luhansk, which constitutes the Donbass with neighboring Donetsk.

Russia is focusing, after failing to seize the Ukrainian capital, on occupying parts of Donbass not yet controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.

Russian forces have made small advances in recent days as shelling gnawed at Ukrainian positions and kept civilians trapped in basements or desperately trying to get out to safety.

Attacks aimed at destroying military targets throughout the country have also resulted in casualties in civilian areas.

Civilians who reached the eastern town of Pokrovsk, about 130 kilometers south of Lysychansk, said they held out as long as possible before fleeing the Russian advance.

Serhiy Haidai, Lugansk regional governor, said the constant shelling was creating a “serious” situation in Lysychansk. “There are dead and injured,” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app, without giving further details.

On Saturday, he said, one civilian died and four were injured after a Russian shell hit an apartment building.

But some supply and evacuation routes from Luhansk were still operating on Sunday, he said. He claimed the Russians withdrew “with losses” around a village near Severodonetsk, but carried out airstrikes on another nearby village on the Siverskyi Donets River.

A patient is loaded onto a medical evacuation train in Pokrovsk, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on Sunday. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said there was fighting at the city’s bus station on Saturday. Residents remaining in the town, which had a population of around 100,000 before the war, risked being exposed to shelling to obtain water from half a dozen wells, and there was no electricity or service. mobile phone, Striuk said.

Striuk estimated that 1,500 civilians have died in Russian attacks since the start of the war, as well as from lack of medicine and incurable diseases.

Deteriorating conditions raised fears that Severodonetsk could become the next Mariupol, a port city 280 kilometers to the south that spent nearly three months under siege before the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered.

A building damaged by a Russian military strike is seen in the town of Bakhmut, Donetsk, Ukraine on Sunday. (Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters)

Regions across Ukraine were hit overnight by new Russian airstrikes. On the ground in the eastern region of Donetsk, fighters fought for control of villages and towns.

The Ukrainian army reported heavy fighting around Donetsk, the provincial capital, as well as in Lyman to the north. The small town serves as a key railway hub in the Donetsk region. Moscow claimed on Saturday that it had taken Lyman, but Ukrainian authorities said their fighters remained engaged in fighting in parts of the city.

“The enemy is strengthening its units,” the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said in an operational update. “He’s trying to establish himself in the area.”

Zelensky visits the front line

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky paid a rare frontline visit to the city of Kharkiv as he sought to assert the strength of Ukraine’s position there. Ukrainian fighters pushed back Russian forces from their positions near the city, Ukraine’s second largest, several weeks ago.

“I feel boundless pride for our defenders. Every day, at the risk of their lives, they fight for the freedom of Ukraine,” Zelensky wrote on the Telegram messaging app after visiting soldiers stationed there. in Kharkov.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, center, inspects damaged buildings during a visit to the northeast region of Kharkiv on Sunday. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/Associated Press)

Russia continued to shell the city from the northeast from afar, and explosions could be heard in the area shortly after Zelensky’s visit. Bombings and airstrikes have destroyed more than 2,000 buildings since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, according to regional governor Oleh Syniehubov.

In the wider Kharkiv region, Russian troops still held about 30% of the territory, while Ukrainian troops had taken over another 5%, the governor said.

However, Zelensky acknowledged that the battle for the East is “indescribably difficult”. “The Russian army is trying to achieve at least one result” by concentrating its attacks there, he said in a video address on Saturday evening.