Kyiv, Ukraine (AFP) – After weeks of fierce fightingUkrainian forces have begun to withdraw from a besieged city in the east of the country to move to stronger positions, a regional official said on Friday, a four-month mark of the Russian invasion.
The planned withdrawal from Severodonetsk, the administrative center of the Luhansk region, comes after relentless Russian bombardment reduced most of the industrial city to rubble and reduced its population from 100,000. to 10,000. Ukrainian forces fought the Russians in house-to-house battles before retreating to the massive Azot chemical plant on the edge of town, where they still hide in sprawling underground buildings where some 500 civilians also took refuge.
In recent days, Russian forces have made gains around Sievierodonetsk and the neighboring city of Lysychansk, on a steep bank across a river, in an attempt to encircle the Ukrainian forces.
The focal point of the Russian offensive aimed at capturing all of the Donbass islands and destroying the Ukrainian army defending them – the most capable and hard-to-fight part of the country’s armed forces – was Severodonetsk and Lysichansk. The two cities and their surrounding areas are the last major pockets of Ukrainian resistance in the Luhansk region – 95% of them are under the control of Russian and local separatist forces. Russians and separatists also control about half of the Donetsk region, the second province of Donbass.
Russia used its numerical advantages in forces and weapons to strike at Severodonetsk in what became a war of attrition, while Ukraine demanded better and more weapons from its Western allies. Bridges to the city were destroyed, slowing the ability of the Ukrainian army to resupply, reinforce and evacuate the wounded and others. Much of the city’s electricity, water, and communications infrastructure has been destroyed.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday said Ukrainian forces had been ordered to leave Severodonetsk to prevent greater losses and move to better fortified positions. The head of the regional administration, Roman Vlasenko, said the withdrawal had already begun and would take several days.
“So far, the Ukrainian army is still in Severodonetsk,” Vlasenko told CNN. They are withdrawing from the city for the time being. I started yesterday.”
The Ukrainian military spokesman refused to confirm the withdrawal order, saying that government policy forbids comments on Ukrainian troop movements.
“Unfortunately, we will have to withdraw our troops from Sievierodonetsk,” Heidi told The Associated Press. “It doesn’t make sense to stay in the destroyed sites, the number of dead in battle is increasing.”
A senior US defense official, speaking in Washington on condition of anonymity, on Friday described the Ukrainians’ move as a “tactical retreat” to consolidate forces into positions where they can best defend themselves. This would add to Ukraine’s efforts to keep Russian forces confined for longer to a small area, the official said.
Heidi noted that during the withdrawal, some Ukrainian forces remained in Severodonetsk, facing Russian bombing that destroyed 80% of the buildings.
“Even today, the resistance in Severodonetsk continues,” Haiday told The Associated Press. “The Russians are relentlessly bombing Ukrainian positions and burning everything.”
Hayday said the Russians were also advancing towards Lysichansk – from Zolote and Toshkivka – adding that Russian reconnaissance units conducted raids on the outskirts of the city but were driven out by its defenders. The governor added that the bridge to Lysychansk was badly damaged in a Russian air strike and unfit for trucks. Ukrainian military analyst Oleg Zhdanov told the Associated Press that some forces that have moved away from Severodonetsk are heading to fight in Lyschansk.
In other battlefield reports, the Russian Defense Ministry announced on Friday that four Ukrainian battalions and a unit of “foreign mercenaries” totaling about 2,000 soldiers were “completely enclosed” near Hersk and Zolote, south of Lyschansk. The claim cannot be independently verified.
After an unsuccessful attempt to seize Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, in the first stage of the invasion Starting on February 24, Russian forces have shifted their focus to Donbass, where Ukrainian forces have been battling Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
After repeated requests to its Western allies for heavy weapons to counter Russia’s superiority in firepower, four American medium-range missile launchers He arrived, with four others on the way. More Ukrainian forces are training outside Ukraine to use High Mobility Artillery Missile Systems, or HIMARS, and are expected to return home with weapons by mid-July, a senior US defense official said Friday.
The missiles can travel about 45 miles (70 kilometers). It will also send 18 US coastal and river patrol boats. The official said there was no evidence that Russia had succeeded in intercepting any of what was a sustained flow of military aid to Ukraine from the United States and other countries. Russia has repeatedly threatened to strike such shipments, or has already claimed to have struck such shipments.
In other developments:
The day after Ukraine was approved as a candidate to join the European Union, Zelensky urged Ukrainians not to focus on all that remains to be done before the country is accepted into the EU, but to quietly celebrate this moment and take pride in how far Ukraine has come. She is already beginning to move away from her Soviet past.
“Don’t be happy that this is a slap in the face for Moscow but be proud that this is an applause for Ukraine,” he said in his nightly video address. “Let it inspire you. We deserve it. Please smile and may God bless us all with a peaceful night. Then tomorrow, again in battle. With new strength and new wings.”
In Tbilisi, Georgia, another former Soviet republic that has applied to join the European Union, thousands rallied Friday to demand the prime minister’s resignation over his government’s failure to implement reforms needed for Georgia to join Ukraine in accepting it as a nation. candidate for membership in the European Union. The European Council said this week that Georgia has more work to do before it can be granted candidate status.
Zelensky addressed the rally by video, expressing his support for Georgia and thanking the Georgians who came to Ukraine to join the fight against Russia. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and now effectively controls two breakaway regions.
Zelensky urged music fans at the Glastonbury Festival to “spread the truth about the Russian war”. Speaking to the audience in the British music video extravaganza on Friday before the performance of the group The Libertines, Zelensky said, “We in Ukraine also like to live life as we used to and enjoy freedom and this wonderful summer, but we can’t do that. That’s because the most terrible thing that happened – Russia stole Hello.”
An official of the pro-Moscow administration in the southern city of Kherson, which was captured by Russian forces early in the invasion, was killed in an explosion on Friday. The pro-Russian regional administration in Kherson said Dmitry Savlyushenko died when his car exploded in what it called a “terrorist attack”. No one immediately claimed responsibility.
Yuras Kermano reported from Lviv.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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