Russian and Ukrainian troops engaged in hand-to-hand combat in a city in eastern Ukraine on Sunday as Moscow’s soldiers, backed by intense shelling, tried to gain strategic bases to seize the region amid fierce Ukrainian resistance.
Ukrainian regional officials reported that Russian forces “stormed” Sievierodonetsk after unsuccessfully attempting to encircle the city. The fighting has paralyzed electricity and cell phone services, and a humanitarian aid center is unable to operate because of the danger, the mayor said.
Sievierodonetsk, some 143 kilometers (89 miles) south of the Russian border, has in recent days become the epicenter of Moscow’s bid to conquer all of Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region. Russia also stepped up efforts to take nearby Lysychansk, where civilians rushed to escape the sustained shelling.
The two eastern cities span the strategically important Siversky Donetsk River. They are the last large areas under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk province, which together with neighboring Donetsk forms the Donbass.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a rare front-line visit to the city of Kharkiv in an attempt to bolster the strength of Ukraine’s position there. Ukrainian fighters pushed back Russian troops from positions near the city, Ukraine’s second largest, a few weeks ago.
“I am immensely proud of our defenders. Every day they risk their lives fighting for the freedom of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy wrote on the messaging app Telegram after visiting soldiers stationed in Kharkiv.
Russia continues to shell the northeastern city from afar, and explosions were heard in the area shortly after Zelenskyy’s visit. According to regional governor Oleh Syniehubov, more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed by shelling and airstrikes since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
In the broader Kharkiv region, Russian troops still held about 30 percent of the territory, while Kiev’s troops had recaptured another five percent, the governor said.
However, Zelenskyy admitted that the struggle for the East was “indescribably difficult”. The “Russian army is trying to extort at least some result” by concentrating its attacks there, he said in a video address Saturday night.
Having failed to capture the Ukrainian capital, Russia is focused on occupying parts of the Donbass not yet controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.
Russian forces have made little headway in recent days as bombing raids nagged Ukrainian positions, trapping civilians in basements or desperately trying to get out safely. Attacks to destroy military targets across the country also claimed civilian casualties.
Civilians who reached the eastern city of Pokrovsk, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Lysychansk, said they held out as long as they could before fleeing the Russian advance.
Yana Skakova choked back tears as she described walking away with her 18-month-old and four-year-old sons while her husband stayed behind to look after their house and animals. The family were among 18 people who had been living in a basement for the past 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 kids, we decided to leave.”
Serhiy Haidai, the Luhansk provincial governor, said the constant shelling created a “serious” situation in Lysyhansk. “There are dead and wounded,” he wrote on Telegram, without elaborating.
On Saturday, he said, one civilian died and four were injured after a Russian shell hit a high-rise apartment building.
But some supply and evacuation routes in Luhansk were still functioning on Sunday, he said. He claimed that the Russians retreated “with casualties” from around a village near Sievierodonetsk, but carried out air raids on another nearby village on the strategic Siwerskiy Donetsk river.
Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk said fighting broke out at the city’s bus station on Saturday. Residents who stayed in the town, which had a population of around 100,000 before the war, risked being shelled to get water from a half-dozen wells, and there was no electricity or cellphone service, Striuk said.
Striuk estimates that 1,500 civilians have died in Russian attacks since the war began, as well as from shortages of medicine and terminal diseases.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, questioned the Kremlin’s strategy of waging a massive military effort to take Sieverodonetsk, saying it would be costly for Russia and yield little.
“When the Sieverodonetsk battle ends, the Russian offensive will likely have peaked at the operational and strategic level, regardless of which side is holding the city, giving Ukraine a chance to resume its operational counter-offensives to push back Russian forces ‘ the institute said in an assessment published late Saturday.
Deteriorating conditions raised fears that Sieverodonetsk could become the next Mariupol, a port city 281 kilometers to the south that was under siege for nearly three months before the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered.
An adviser to Ukraine’s Mariupol mayor claimed on Sunday that after Russian forces took complete control of Mariupol, they piled the bodies of dead people in a supermarket.
The aide, Petro Andryushchenko, posted a photo on the messaging app Telegram of what he described as a “corpse dump” in the occupied city. It showed bodies stacked next to closed supermarket counters.
It was not immediately possible to verify his claim or the authenticity of the photo, which Andryushchenko called new.
“This is where the Russians bring the bodies of the dead, washed out of their graves and partially exhumed in attempts to restore water supplies. They just throw them away like garbage,” he wrote.
Regions across Ukraine were hit by renewed Russian airstrikes overnight. On the ground in the eastern Donetsk region, militants fought back and forth for control of villages and towns.
The Ukrainian army reported fierce fighting around the provincial capital of Donetsk and Lyman in the north. The small town serves as a major railway hub in the Donetsk region. Moscow claimed on Saturday 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 General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in an operational update. “She’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.