Pokrovsk, Ukraine (AFP) – Russian and Ukrainian forces engaged in close combat in an eastern Ukrainian city on Sunday as Moscow’s soldiers, backed by intense bombing, tried to gain a strategic foothold to invade the region in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.
Ukrainian regional officials report that Russian forces have “stormed” Severodonetsk after their failed attempt to encircle the city. The mayor said the fighting cut off electricity and cell phones, and the humanitarian relief center was unable to function because of the danger.
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 quest to control Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region. Russia also intensified its efforts to seize neighboring Lysekhansk, as civilians rushed to flee Constant bombardment.
The two eastern cities straddle the strategically important Siverskiy Donetsk River. It is the last major Ukrainian-controlled territory of Luhansk Province, which together with neighboring Donetsk makes up the Donbass.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a rare visit to the front lines of Kharkiv, where he sought to underscore the strength of Ukraine’s position there. Ukrainian fighters pushed Russian forces back from positions near the city, Ukraine’s second largest, several weeks ago.
“I feel boundless pride in our defenders,” Zelensky wrote in the Telegram messaging app after visiting soldiers stationed in Kharkiv every day, risking their lives, fighting for the freedom of Ukraine.
Russia continued to bombard the northeastern city from afar, and explosions were heard in the area shortly after Zelensky’s visit. Shelling and airstrikes have destroyed more than 2,000 apartment buildings since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, according to the region’s governor, Oleh Sinihopov.
In the wider Kharkiv region, Russian forces still control about 30% of the territory, while Kievan forces have recaptured another 5%, the governor said.
However, Zelensky admitted that the battle for the East was “indescribably difficult”. “The Russian military is trying to squeeze at least some results” by focusing its attacks there, he said in a video address on Saturday night.
Russia, having failed to capture the Ukrainian capital, is focusing on occupying parts of Donbass not already controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Russian forces have made little progress in recent days as bombing has uprooted Ukrainian positions and kept civilians trapped in basements or desperately trying to get out safely. Attacks to destroy military targets across the country also caused casualties in civilian areas.
Civilians who reached the eastern city of Pokrovsk, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Lysekhansk, said they held out as long as 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 home city,” she said. “But for the sake of these little kids, we decided to leave.”
Serhiy Haiday, the governor of Luhansk province, said the continued bombing had created a “dangerous” situation in Lysekhansk. “There are dead and wounded,” he wrote on Telegram, without elaborating.
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 still operating on Sunday. He claimed that the Russians retreated “with losses” from around a village near Severodonetsk but launched air raids on another nearby village on the strategic Donetsk Seversky River.
The mayor of Severodonetsk, Oleksandr Stryuk, said there was fighting at the city’s bus station on Saturday. Strick said the remaining residents of the city, which had a pre-war population of about 100,000, risked being bombed to get water from six wells, and there was no electricity or mobile phone service.
Stryuk estimated that 1,500 civilians had been killed in Russian attacks since the beginning of the war, as well as due to drug shortages and irreversible diseases.
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 Severodonetsk ends, regardless of which side controls the city, the Russian offensive at 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 Russian forces back,” the institute said in an assessment Posted late Saturday.
Deteriorating conditions have raised fears that Severodonetsk will become the next Mariupola port city 281 kilometers (175 miles) to the south and 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 complete control of Mariupol, they piled the bodies of the dead inside a supermarket.
The aide, Petro Andryoshenko, 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.
It was not immediately possible to verify his claim or the authenticity of the photo, which Andriychenko described as recent.
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.
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 around Lyman in the north. The small town 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 in a field update. “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.
Follow the Associated Press’ coverage of the Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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