Ukrainian army leaving battered city for fortified positions

·5 min read

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — After weeks of ferocious fighting, Ukrainian forces have begun retreating from a besieged city in the country's east to move to stronger positions, a regional governor said Friday, the four-month mark in Russia's invasion.

The planned withdrawal from Sievierodonetsk, the administrative center of the Luhansk region, comes after relentless Russian bombardment that has reduced most of the industrial city to rubble and cut its population from 100,0000 to 10,000. Ukrainian troops fought the Russians in house-to-house battles before retreating to the huge Azot chemical factory on the city's edge, where they remain holed up in its sprawling underground structures in which about 500 civilians also found 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 a bid to encircle Ukrainian forces.

Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk have been the focal point of the Russian offensive aimed at capturing all of the Donbas and destroying the Ukrainian military defending it — the most capable and battle-hardened segment of the country’s armed forces. The two cities and surrounding areas are the last major pockets of Ukrainian resistance in the Luhansk region — 95% of which is under Russian and local separatist forces' control. The Russians and separatists also control about half of the Donetsk region, the second province in the Donbas.

Russia used its numerical advantages in troops and weapons to pummel Sievierodonetsk in what has become a war of attrition, while Ukraine clamored for better and more weapons from its Western allies. Bridges to the city were destroyed, slowing the Ukrainian military's ability to resupply, reinforce and evacuate the wounded and others.

Much of the city’s electricity, water and communications infrastructure has been destroyed.

Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Ukrainian troops have been ordered to leave Sievierodonetsk to prevent bigger losses and move to better fortified positions. Ukraine's military spokesman declined to confirm the retreat order, saying government policy prevents comments on Ukrainian troop movements.

“Regrettably, we will have to pull our troops out of Sievierodonetsk,” Haidai told The Associated Press. “It makes no sense to stay at the destroyed positions, and the number of killed in action has been growing.”

Haidai noted that while the retreat is under way, some Ukrainian troops remain in Sievierodonetsk, facing massive Russian bombardment that has destroyed 80% of buildings.

“As of today, the resistance in Sievierodonetsk is continuing,” Haidai told the AP. “The Russians are relentlessly shelling the Ukrainian positions, burning everything out.”

Haidai said the Russians are also advancing toward Lysychansk — from Zolote and Toshkivka, adding that Russian reconnaissance units conducted forays on the city's edges but its defenders drove them out. The governor added that a bridge leading to Lysychansk was badly damaged in a Russian airstrike and is unusable for trucks. Ukrainian military analyst Oleg Zhdanov told the AP that some of the troops moving away from Sievierodonetsk are heading to the fight in Lysychansk.

In other battlefield reports, the Russian Defense Ministry declared Friday that four Ukrainian battalions and a unit of “foreign mercenaries” totaling about 2,000 soldiers have been “fully blocked” near Hirske and Zolote, south of Lysychansk. The claim couldn’t be independently verified.

Following a botched attempt to capture Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, in the early stage of the invasion that started Feb. 24, Russian forces have shifted their focus to the Donbas, where the Ukrainian forces have fought Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

After repeated requests to its Western allies for heavier weaponry to counter Russia’s edge in firepower, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said medium-range American rocket launchers had arrived. A U.S. defense official confirmed that all four of the promised High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, were in the hands of Ukrainian forces but said it wasn't clear if they have been used yet.

The U.S. approved providing the precision-guided systems at the end of May, and once they were in the region, Ukraine’s forces needed about three weeks of training to operate them. The rockets can travel about 45 miles (70 kilometers).

The U.S. will send an addition $450 million in military aid to Ukraine, including four more of the medium-range rocket systems, ammunition and other supplies, U.S. officials announced Thursday.

IN OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged music fans at the Glastonbury Festival to “spread the truth about Russia’s war.” Speaking to the crowd at the British music extravaganza by video on Friday before a set by The Libertines, Zelenskyy said, “We in Ukraine would also like to live the life as we used to and enjoy freedom and this wonderful summer, but we cannot do that because the most terrible has happened – Russia has stolen our peace.”

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An official with the pro-Moscow administration in the southern city of Kherson that was captured by Russian troops early in the invasion was killed in an explosion Friday. The pro-Russian regional administration in Kherson said that Dmitry Savlyuchenko died when his vehicle exploded in what it described as a “terror attack.” There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

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Yuras Karmanau reported from Lviv.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

David Keyton, John Leicester And Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press

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