Russia launched artillery bombardments and airstrikes on the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk on Saturday, hitting a chemical plant where hundreds of civilians were trapped, a Ukrainian official has said.
Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces had attacked Sievierodonetsk’s industrial zone and tried to enter and blockade Lysychansk.
“There was an airstrike at Lysychansk. Sievierodonetsk was hit by artillery,” Gaidai said on Telegram. The Azot chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk and the villages of Synetsky and Pavlograd and others were shelled, he said.
He made no mention of casualties at the chemical plant and Reuters could not immediately verify the information.
He did say, however, that police officers, rescuers and volunteers had evacuated 17 people from Lysychansk on Friday.
Ukraine said on Friday that its troops had been ordered to retreat from Sievierodonetsk, a key battleground city, because there was very little left to defend after weeks of intense fighting.
“During the last days, an operation was conducted to withdraw our troops,” Kharatin Starskyi, the press officer of a National Guard brigade, said on Saturday.
Starskyi, who had been in Sievierodonetsk, told morning television that the flow of information about the withdrawal had been delayed to protect troops on the ground. The retreat marks the biggest reversal for Ukraine since the loss of the southern port of Mariupol in May.
News of the withdrawal on Friday came four months to the day since Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, sent tens of thousands of troops over the border, unleashing a conflict that has killed thousands of people, uprooted millions and reduced whole cities to rubble.
The latest Russian advances appeared to bring the Kremlin closer to taking full control of Luhansk, one of Moscow’s stated war objectives, and sets the stage for Lysychansk to become the next main focus of fighting.
Vitaly Kiselev, an interior ministry official of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, which is recognised only by Russia, told the TASS news agency that it would take another week and a half to secure full control of Lysychansk.
Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, but abandoned an early advance on Kyiv in the face of fierce resistance bolstered by western arms.
Since then Moscow and its proxies have focused on the south and Donbas, an eastern territory made up of Luhansk and its neighbour Donetsk, deploying overwhelming artillery in some of the heaviest ground fighting in Europe since the second world war.
On Saturday, Russia launched missile strikes on military and civilian infrastructure in the north near Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv through to Sievierodonetsk in the east, according to the general staff of Ukraine*s armed forces.
Several regional governors reported shelling on towns across Ukraine. Russia denies targeting civilians, but Kyiv and the west say its forces have committed war crimes.
Ukraine pressed for more arms again on Friday. Its top general, Valeriy Zaluzhny, told his US counterpart in a phone call that Kyiv needed “fire parity” with Moscow to stabilise the situation in Luhansk.