Ukraine to civilians: Leave liberated areas before winter

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian authorities are evacuating civilians from recently liberated sections of the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, fearing that a lack of heat, power and water due to Russian shelling will make conditions too unlivable this winter. The move came as rolling blackouts on Monday plagued most of the country.

Authorities urged residents of the two southern regions, which Russian forces have been shelling for months, to move to safer areas in the central and and western parts of the country, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Monday. The government will provide transportation, accommodations and medical care, she added.

The evacuations are taking place more than a week after Ukraine recaptured the city of Kherson, on the western bank of the Dnieper River, and surrounding areas in a major battlefield gain. Since then, heading into the winter, residents and authorities alike are realizing just how much power and other infrastructure the Russians destroyed before retreating or damaged just in the last week.

Ukraine is known for its brutal winter weather, and snow has already covered Kyiv, the capital, and other parts of the country.

Russian forces are fortifying their defense lines along Dnieper River's eastern bank, fearing that Ukrainian forces will push deeper into the region. In the weeks before Ukraine's successful counteroffensive, Russian-installed authorities encouraged and helped tens of thousands of Kherson city residents to evacuate to Russian-held areas.

On Monday, Russian-installed authorities urged other residents to evacuate an area on the river's eastern bank that Moscow now controls, citing intense fighting in Kherson's Kakhovskiy district.

Russia has been pounding Ukraine’s power grid and other infrastructure from the air for weeks, causing widespread blackouts and leaving millions of Ukrainians without electricity, heat and water.

To cope with the power shortages, four-hour or longer power outages were scheduled Monday in 15 of Ukraine's 27 regions, according to Volodymyr Kudrytsky, head of Ukraine’s state grid operator Ukrenergo. The latest available estimate is that more than 40% of the country’s energy facilities have been damaged by Russian missile strikes.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday repeated his calls for NATO nations and other allies to recognize Russia as a terrorist state, saying that its shelling of energy supplies was tantamount “to the use of a weapon of mass destruction.” Zelenskyy also again urged stricter sanctions against Russia and appealed for more air defense aid.

“The terrorist state needs to see that they do not stand a chance,” he told NATO’s 68th Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Madrid in a video address.

Also Monday, Zelenskyy and his wife made a rare joint public appearance to observe a moment of silence and place candles at a Kyiv memorial for those killed in Ukraine's pro-European Union mass protests in 2014. As bells rang in a memorial tribute, Ukraine's first couple walked under a gray sky and on streets dusted with snow and ice up to a wall of stone plaques bearing the images and names of fallen protesters.

Their visit coincided with fresh reminders of more death and destruction on Ukrainian soil.

At least four civilians were killed and eight more were wounded in Ukraine over the past 24 hours, the deputy head of the country’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said Monday.

A Russian missile strike in the northeast Kharkiv region on Sunday night killed one person and wounded two, according to Kharkiv's governor, as it hit a residential building in the village of Shevchenkove.

One person was wounded overnight in the Dnipropetrovsk region, where Russian forces shelled the city of Nikopol and surrounding areas, Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko said. Nikopol lies across the river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

In the eastern Donetsk region, which Moscow partially controls, Russian forces shelled 14 towns and villages, the region’s Ukrainian governor said.

Heavy fighting was taking place near the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, where a school was damaged. In Makiivka, which is under Russian control, an oil depot was hit and caught fire, local Moscow-installed authorities said.

Russian-installed authorities said more than 105,000 people in the province’s capital, Donetsk, were left without electricity on Monday after Ukrainian shelling damaged power lines. One person was killed, officials said, and 59 miners were trapped underground after power was cut to four coal mines.

In the neighboring Luhansk region, most of which is under Russian control, the Ukrainian army is advancing towards the key cities of Kreminna and Svatove, where the Russians have set up a defense line, according to Luhansk’s Ukrainian Gov. Serhiy Haidai.

“There are successes and the Ukrainian army is moving very slowly, but it will be much more difficult for Russians to defend themselves after Svatove and Kreminna (are retaken)," Haidai told Ukrainian television.

Britain's Defense Ministry said Russian leaders likely see retaining control of Svatove as a political priority but that “both Russian defensive and offensive capability continues to be hampered by severe shortages of munitions and skilled personnel.”

On Sunday, powerful explosions from shelling shook Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, the site of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the global nuclear watchdog, called for “urgent measures to help prevent a nuclear accident” in the Russian-occupied facility, whose six reactors are shut down.

Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for the shelling. The area has been the site of fighting since Russian forces occupied the plant in late February, sparking fears of a nuclear accident.

On Monday, Russia’s nuclear plant operator, Rosatom, agreed with the IAEA about the risk of a nuclear accident at the Zaporizhzhia power plant. Rosatom head Alexei Likhachyov said the company held talks with the IAEA overnight, and again blamed Kyiv.

“Apparently, Kyiv considers a small nuclear incident acceptable,” said Likhachyov, “Everything must be done so that no one even thinks about encroaching on the safety of the nuclear power plant.”

Ukrainian authorities did not immediately react to Likhachyov’s comments.

With the reactors shut down, experts have said the risk of a major nuclear accident such as a meltdown is low but that radiation leaks are possible.

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John Leicester, The Associated Press