KYIV/KONSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine, July 3 (Reuters) – Russia said on Sunday its forces and their allies had taken control of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, after capturing the final Ukrainian holdout of Lysychansk, although Ukraine has yet to comment after reporting heavy fighting there.
After fierce Ukrainian resistance prevented Russian seizing the capital Kyiv after its Feb. 24 invasion, Moscow turned its focus to taking full control of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting in the area since Russia’s first military intervention in Ukraine in 2014.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu informed President Vladimir Putin that Luhansk had been “liberated”, the defence ministry said, after Russia earlier said its forces had captured villages around Lysychansk and encircled the city.
The minister said Russian forces and their allies in the area had “gained full control over the city of Lysychansk”.
Ukraine’s military did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Ukrainian officials, who say references to “liberating” Ukrainian territory are Russian war propaganda, had reported intense artillery barrages on residential areas.
“Ukrainian forces likely conducted a deliberate withdrawal from Lysychansk, resulting in the Russian seizure of the city on July 2,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, wrote in a briefing note.
They based their assessment on footage showing Russia forces walking casually in northern and eastern neighbourhoods of Lysychansk, saying it suggested few or no Ukrainian forces remained. It said the footage included images posted on social media and geolocated to confirm where it was filmed.
“The Russians are strengthening their positions in the Lysychansk area, the city is on fire,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai had written on the Telegram app before Russia announced its advance. “They attacked the city with inexplicably brutal tactics.”
Thousands of civilians have been killed and cities levelled since Russia invaded, with Kyiv accusing Moscow of deliberately targeting civilians. Moscow denies this.
Russia says what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine aims to protect Russian speakers from nationalists. Ukraine and its Western allies say this is a baseless pretext for its flagrant aggression that aims to seize territory.
BLASTS IN BELGOROD
Russia also reported explosions on Sunday in its city of Belgorod, about 40 km (25 miles) north of the border with Ukraine, that killed at least three people were killed and damaged and destroyed homes.
Senior Russian lawmaker Andrei Klishas accused Ukraine of shelling Belgorod and called for a stern response.
Russian regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Telegram that five homes were destroyed in the city and at least 11 apartment buildings and more than 30 houses were damaged.
“The sound was so strong that I jumped up, I woke up, got very scared and started screaming,” a Belgorod resident told Reuters, adding the blasts occurred around 3 a.m. (0000 GMT).
Moscow has accused Kyiv of numerous attacks on Belgorod and other areas bordering Ukraine. Kyiv has not claimed responsibility but says such incidents as payback, after Russia has pounded Ukrainian urban areas into rubble.
There was no immediate comment from Ukraine on the latest Belgorod incident. Reuters could not independently verify the Russian accounts.
In the Russian-occupied southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, Ukrainian forces hit a military base with more than 30 strikes on Sunday, the city’s exiled mayor Ivan Fedorov said in a video address on Telegram.
He said the base had been “taken out of action”.
The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said its air force had flown some 15 sorties “in virtually all directions of hostilities”, destroying equipment and two ammunition depots.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.
Russia’s defence ministry also said on Sunday it had struck military infrastructure of Kharkiv, a city in northeast Ukraine where Ukrainian forces have been digging in and building concrete fortifications after nightly shelling, a Reuters reporter said.
Dozens of civilians have been wounded or killed in the region in recent weeks.
Far from fighting in the east and close to another front in the south, Russia said it had hit army command posts in Mykolaiv near the vital Black Sea port of Odesa, where the mayor on Saturday had reported a number of powerful explosions.
“The Russian occupiers are launching systematic rocket attacks in the direction of Mykolaiv,” Ukraine’s general staff said on Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux and Leah Millis in Kharkiv; Writing by Lincoln Feast and Aidan Lewis; Editing by William Mallard and Edmund Blair)