Russian forces tightened their grip on the eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk on Monday, a Ukrainian official said, cutting off the last routes for evacuating citizens in a scene that echoed last month’s siege of the port of Mariupol.
Amid heavy bombardment, regional governor Sergei Gaidai said on social media that all bridges out of the city had been destroyed, making it impossible to bring in humanitarian cargoes or evacuate citizens.
He said 70% of the small industrial city – now the focus of one of the bloodiest battles of the war – was under Russian control, but that the remaining Ukrainian defenders were not completely blockaded.
“They have the ability to send the wounded to hospitals, so there is still access,” he told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service. “It’s hard to deliver weapons or reserves. Difficult, but not impossible.”
Ukraine has issued increasingly urgent calls for more Western heavy weapons to help defend Sievierodonetsk, which Kyiv says could hold the key to the battle for the eastern Donbas region and the course of the war, now in its fourth month.
Ukraine’s military command said in a briefing note that Russian forces were trying to take full control of Sievierodonetsk, but that an assault on Ukrainian positions in the southeast of the city had failed.
“The battles are so fierce that fighting for not just a street but for a single high-rise building can last for days,” Gaidai said earlier. He is governor of the Luhansk region that includes Sievierodonetsk.
Russian artillery fire pummelled the Azot chemical plant, where hundred of civilians were sheltering, he said.
“About 500 civilians remain on the grounds of the Azot plant in Sievierodonetsk, 40 of them are children. Sometimes the military manages to evacuate someone,” he said.
Damien Magrou, spokesperson for the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine that has had forces in Sievierodonetsk, said the situation there risked becoming like Mariupol, “with a large pocket of Ukrainian defenders cut off from the rest of the Ukrainian troops”.
“This is one of the reasons why it is so important that our Western partners deliver long range artillery as fast as possible,” he said.
Russia’s RIA news agency quoted a pro-Moscow separatist spokesperson, Eduard Basurin, as saying Ukrainian troops were effectively blockaded in Sievierodonetsk and should surrender or die.
Ukraine’s account of civilians trapped in an industrial plant echoed the fall of Mariupol last month, where hundreds of civilians and badly wounded Ukrainian soldiers were trapped for weeks in the Azovstal steelworks.
Gaidai said a six-year-old child was among those killed in the latest shelling of Lysychansk. Officials in the Russian-backed separatist-controlled Donetsk region said at least three people, including a child, were killed and 18 were wounded by Ukrainian shelling that hit a market in Donetsk city.
The Donetsk News Agency showed pictures of burning stalls at the central Maisky market and several bodies on the ground. The news agency said 155-mm calibre NATO-standard artillery munitions hit parts of the region on Monday.i