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 were “storming” 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 intensified its efforts to take nearby Lysychansk, where civilians rushed to escape persistent shelling.
The two cities are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in the province of Luhansk, which constitutes 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 across the country also resulted in casualties in civilian areas
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the situation in the east as “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.
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.”
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 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 raised fears that Sieverodonetsk could become the next Mariupol, a port city 281 kilometers (175 miles) to the south that spent nearly three months under siege before the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered.
READ MORE: In Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, Russian forces are taking control of one town at a time
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.
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 Luhansk 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.
Ukraine’s military said on Sunday that Russian forces were also trying to reinforce their positions around Lyman, a small town that serves as a key rail 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.”
The Ukrainian military said heavy fighting was taking place around Donetsk, the provincial capital.
More broadly, Russia launched new airstrikes overnight on Kharkiv and Sumy regions in northern Ukraine and in central Ukraine, Ukrainian state agencies said.
Ukraine’s state emergency service said Sunday that Russian shelling had sparked fires around Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city. Russia has continued to shell Kharkiv, located in northeastern Ukraine, after Ukrainian fighters pushed its forces back from positions near the city several weeks ago.
READ MORE: Russia captures more territory as it expands battle into eastern Ukraine
Zelenskyy visited Kharkiv on Sunday. Regional Governor Oleh Syniehubov told the President that Russian troops remained in possession of around 30% of the Kharkiv region, while troops from Kyiv had recaptured another 5%.
Syniehubov reported that Russian attacks had destroyed more than 2,000 apartment buildings, with the northern and eastern parts of Kharkiv city particularly affected.
Zelenskyy also met with Ukrainian soldiers stationed in Kharkiv.
“I feel boundless pride in our defenders. Every day, at the risk of their lives, they fight for the freedom of Ukraine,” he wrote in a Telegram post.
Ukraine’s Border Guard Service said border areas in the Sumy region east of Kharkiv were hit by six unguided missiles. The agency reported no casualties.
Russia claimed its forces had destroyed a major Ukrainian ammunition depot in Kryvyi Rih, a town in central Ukraine that is Zelenskyy’s hometown. High-precision missiles hit a depot located “in one of the industrial enterprises”, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
Ukrainian emergency services have confirmed that an industrial plant in Kryvyi Rih caught fire after a strike from two Russian rockets and suffered “significant damage”. Officials did not say whether it served as a military depot.
Mazalan reported from Kyiv. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and AP reporters around the world contributed.