Russians storm town and bomb eastern Ukraine during Zelensky’s visit

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POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — 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 fierce Ukrainian resistance.

Ukrainian regional officials reported that Russian forces had “stormed” Sievierodonetsk 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.

Sievierodonetsk, located about 143 kilometers (89 miles) south of the Russian border, has emerged in recent days as the epicenter of Moscow’s quest to capture all of Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region. Russia also stepped up efforts to take nearby Lysychansk, where civilians rushed to escape persistent bombings.

The two eastern cities span the strategically important Siverskiy Donetsk River. These are the last large areas under Ukrainian control in the province of Lugansk, which constitutes the Donbass with neighboring Donetsk.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy 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 in our defenders. Every day, at the risk of their lives, they fight for the freedom of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy wrote on the Telegram messaging app after visiting soldiers stationed there. in Kharkov.

Russia continued to shell the city from the northeast from afar, and explosions could be heard in the area shortly after Zelenskyy’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 troops from Kyiv had recaptured another 5%, the governor said.

However, Zelenskyy 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.

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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 (80 miles) south of Lysychansk, said they held out as long as possible before fleeing the Russian advance.

Yana Skakova held back tears as she described leaving with her 18-month-old and 4-year-old sons while her husband stayed behind to look after their home and animals. The family were among 18 people who had been living in a basement for 2.5 months until police told them on Friday it was time to evacuate.

“None of us wanted to leave our hometown,” she said. “But for the sake of these little children, we decided to leave.”

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

On Saturday, he said, one civilian died and four were injured after a Russian shell hit a high-rise building.

But some supply and evacuation routes from Lugansk were still operating on Sunday, he said. He claimed the Russians withdrew “with losses” around a village near Sievierodonetsk, but carried out airstrikes on another nearby village on the strategic Siverskiy Donetsk river.

Sievierodonetsk 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.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, questioned the Kremlin’s strategy of mounting a huge military effort to take Sieverodonetsk, saying it was proving costly for Russia and n would bring few returns.

“When the Battle of Sieverodonetsk ends, regardless of which side holds the city, the Russian offensive at the operational and strategic levels will probably have peaked, giving Ukraine the opportunity to relaunch its counter-offensives at the operational level to repel Russian forces,” the institute said. said in an assessment published on Saturday evening.

Deteriorating conditions have raised fears that Sieverodonetsk could become the next Mariupola port city 281 kilometers (175 miles) to the south that spent nearly three months under siege before the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered.

An aide to the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol claimed on Sunday that after Russian forces took full control of Mariupol, they piled up corpses in a supermarket.

The aide, Petro Andryushchenko, posted a picture on the Telegram messaging app of what he described as a “dump of corpses” in the occupied city. It showed bodies stacked alongside closed supermarket counters.

It was not immediately possible to verify his claim or the authenticity of the photo, which Andryushchenko described as recent.

“Here the Russians bring the bodies of the dead, which were washed from their graves during attempts to restore the water supply, and partially exhumed. They throw them away like trash,” he wrote.

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 took Lymanbut 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.”

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Mazalan reported from Kyiv. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and AP reporters around the world contributed.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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