Pokrovsk, Ukraine (AB) – Troops from Russia and Ukraine engaged in close combat in the eastern city of Ukraine on Sunday, backed by fierce shelling by Moscow troops, who sought to take strategic steps to seize the region in the face of fierce Ukrainian opposition.
Ukrainian regional authorities have declared a “storm” after Russian forces failed to encircle the city of Siverodonetsk. The mayor said electricity and cell phone service were cut off during the fighting, and that a humanitarian relief center could not function due to the danger.
About 143 kilometers (89 miles) south of the Russian border, Siverodonetsk has recently emerged as the hub of Moscow’s search for the capture of the all-industrial Donbass region of Ukraine. Russia has also stepped up its efforts near Lychisansk, where civilians are fleeing Continuous shell attack.
The two eastern cities extend the strategically important Shivarsky Donetsk River. They are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk region, forming the Donbass with neighboring Donetsk.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zhelensky made a rare front-line visit to the city of Kharkiv, where he sought to confirm the strength of Ukraine’s position. Ukrainian militants pushed back Russian forces from positions near Ukraine’s second largest city several weeks ago.
“I feel infinitely proud of our defenders. Every day, at the risk of their lives, they fight for Ukraine’s independence,” Zhelensky wrote in a telegram news release after visiting soldiers stationed in Kharkiv.
Russia continued to bomb the northeastern city from afar, and explosions were heard in the area after Zhelensky’s arrival. Regional governor Ole Sinihubov said shelling and airstrikes had destroyed more than 2,000 apartment buildings since Russia’s occupation of Ukraine on February 24.
In the vast Kharkiv region, Russian troops still occupy 30% of the territory, while Kiev’s troops recapture another 5%, the governor said.
Zelenskyy, however, acknowledged that the war in the East was “indescribably difficult.” “The Russian military is trying to suppress at least some of the results by concentrating its attacks there,” he said in a video conference Saturday night.
After failing to capture the Ukrainian capital, Russia is focusing on occupying parts of the Donbass, which are not already controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Russian forces have made little progress in recent days as bombings on Ukrainian positions have slowed and civilians have been trapped in basements or trying to evacuate safely. Attacks destroying military targets across the country also resulted in casualties in civilian areas.
The civilians, who reached the eastern city of Pokrovsky, 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Lisyansk, said they had guarded as much as they could before escaping Russian advance.
Yana Skakova burst into tears as she described leaving with her 18-month-old and 4-year-old sons, and how her husband stayed to take care of her house and animals. The family had been living in a basement for the past 2 1/2 months and police told them it was time to vacate on Friday.
“None of us want to leave our hometown,” he said. “But for these little kids, we decided to leave.”
Luhansk provincial governor Serhiy Haidai said a series of shelling had created a “severe” situation in Lysychansk. “There are dead and wounded,” he wrote in a telegram.
On Saturday, a civilian was killed and four others were injured when a Russian shell hit a high-rise apartment building.
But some Luhansk supply and discharge routes were also operational on Sunday, he said. He said the Russians had retreated “with loss” from a village near Siverodonetsk but had carried out airstrikes on another nearby village on the strategic Shivarsky Donetsk River.
Sivrodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said the fight took place at the city bus station on Saturday. The remaining residents of the pre-populated city of about 100,000 will be subject to shelling to get water from half a dozen wells, and there will be no electricity or cell phone service, Strike said.
Striuk estimates that 1,500 civilians have died in Russian attacks since the start of the war, as well as drug shortages and incurable diseases.
A Washington-based think tank, the War Research Institute, has called into question the Kremlin’s strategy of assembling a major military effort to seize Siverodonetsk, saying it would cost Russia dearly and bring in some revenue.
“By the end of the war on Xerodonetsk, Russia will have reached the climax of its offensive at the operational and strategic levels, no matter which side it occupies, and will allow Ukraine to resume its operational counter-attacks to repel Russian forces,” the agency said. Said in an assessment released late Saturday.
Worse conditions raised fears that Siverodonetsk might become the next MariupolA port city 281 kilometers (175 miles) south spent nearly three months under siege before surrendering to Ukrainian militants.
Auxiliary to the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol on Sunday accused Russian forces of dumping the bodies of the dead inside a supermarket after Mariupolin took complete control.
The aide, Petro Andryushchenko, posted a photo in the Telegram news app describing what he described as a “battle well” in the occupied city. It showed bodies piled up near closed supermarket counters.
Andryushchenko described that his claim or the authenticity of the photo could not be immediately verified, which is recent.
“Here, the Russians are bringing the bodies of the dead, which were washed from the graves and partially excavated in an attempt to restore the water supply. They are dumping them like garbage,” he wrote.
Areas across Ukraine were attacked overnight by renewed Russian airstrikes. On the ground in the eastern Donetsk region, the militants fought back and forth for control of villages and towns.
The Ukrainian military has announced heavy fighting around the provincial capital, Donetsk, and north of Lyman. The small town serves as a major railway station in the Donetsk region. Moscow said on Saturday that Lyman had been taken awayBut Ukrainian officials said their militants were still fighting in some parts of the city.
“The enemy is strengthening its units,” said a civil servant of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in an operational update. “It’s trying to get a foothold in the area.”
Masalan reported from Kiev. Andrea Rosa from Kharkiv, Ukraine, Euras Karmanov from Lviv, Ukraine and Andhra journalists from around the world participated.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine