KYIV, July 6 (Reuters) – Ukraine has so far thwarted an attempted Russian advance into the north of its Donetsk region but the city of Sloviansk and other civilian areas are being heavily shelled, Ukrainian officials said on Wednesday.
Russia has increased its focus on Donetsk, the southern part of which it and its proxies already control, after completing its seizure of the neighbouring Luhansk region on Sunday with the capture of Lysychansk, which now lies in ruins.
Moscow says fully pushing the Ukrainian military out of both regions is central to what it calls its “special military operation” to ensure its own security, a now four-months-long offensive which the West calls an unprovoked war of aggression.
Donetsk and Luhansk comprise the Donbas, the industrialised eastern part of Ukraine that has seen the biggest battle in Europe for generations and which Russia wants to wrest control of on behalf of Moscow-backed separatists in two self-proclaimed people’s republics.
Ukrainian officials said heavy fighting had been taking place as Russian forces tried to push from Luhansk into Donetsk region and towards the city of Sloviansk.
“We are holding back the enemy on the border of Luhansk region and Donetsk region,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian television.
He said Russian regular army and reserve forces had been sent there in an apparent effort to cross the Siverskiy Donets River and that two small settlements just inside Luhansk’s borders were the scene of fierce fighting.
“Luhansk region even now is fighting. Almost all the territory has been captured, but in two settlements fighting is ongoing” he told a video briefing.
Gaidai and other Ukrainian officials have said Russian forces are pounding targets in the Donetsk region with artillery.
Vadym Lyakh, the mayor of Sloviansk, told a video briefing on Wednesday the city had been shelled for the last two weeks.
“The situation is tense,” he said, speaking a day after local officials said Russian forces had struck a market and a residential area in Sloviansk and killed at least two people.
Russia says it does not target civilians.
Lyakh said 17 residents had been killed and 67 wounded since President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24. Its pre-war population of more than 100,000 had shrunk to around 23,000 people, he added, and more and more people wanted to leave because of the shelling.
The southern port city of Mykolaiv was also being heavily shelled, Oleksandr Senkevych, its mayor, told a briefing. Russian forces were using multiple launch rocket systems to shell the city which had shed about half of its pre-war population of half a million people, he said.
“There are no safe areas in Mykolaiv,” he said. “I am telling the people of the city that they need to leave.”
Kyiv and the West say Russia is waging an unjustified imperial-style land grab in its fellow ex-Soviet republic, and accuse Moscow and its allies of committing war crimes, something the Kremlin has denied.
Russia says it was forced to try to de-militarise Ukraine after the West ignored its pleas to provide it with guarantees that its westerly neighbour would not be admitted to NATO. It says it also had to act to root out what it said were dangerous nationalists and to protect Russian speakers.
Its invasion has killed thousands, displaced millions and flattened cities. It has also raised global energy and food prices and raised fears of famine in poorer countries as Ukraine and Russia are both major grain producers.
A RUINED CITY
A Reuters reporter who visited Lysychansk on Tuesday, once a city of a 100,000 people, found many buildings scorched and holed by shells, cars up-ended and streets strewn with rubble, testament to the ferocity of the battle it endured.
Tatiana Glushenko, a 45-year-old Lysychansk resident, told Reuters there were people still sheltering in basements and bomb shelters, including children and elderly.
Glushenko said she did not think she would be safe in other parts of Ukraine, so remained in Lysychansk with her family.
“All of Ukraine is being shelled: western Ukraine, central Ukraine, Dnipro, Kyiv, everywhere. So we decided not to risk our lives and stay here, at home at least,” she said.
Glushenko now hopes peace will return to her ruined city, but for elderly residents Sergei and Evgenia the prospect of rebuilding from the ruins is daunting.
“We have to get out of here somehow,” said Sergei, sitting in a dark shelter with a lone flash light.
“The roof is broken. You have to fix it, but how and how do you pay for it?…Winter is coming soon too,” said Evgenia
Luhansk governor Gaidai said Russian forces were pillaging Lysychansk and its twin city Sievierodonetsk.
“They are hunting down pro-Ukraine residents. They are making deals with collaborators, they are identifying apartments where servicemen lived, breaking in and taking clothing,” he said.
“Everything is being destroyed.”
Photo courtesy of Ukrainian MoD