Pro-Russia rebels claim to ‘encircle’ key city, Ukraine denies

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Ukrainian soldiers ride an armored vehicle on the main road to Lysychansk in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas on June 26, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — Fighting raged Saturday for Ukraine’s strategic Lysychansk, as Kyiv denied a claim by Moscow-backed separatists that they had encircled the eastern city.اضافة اعلان

Clashes have been intense in Lysychansk, the last major city in the Lugansk region of the Donbas still in Ukrainian hands, located across the river from neighboring Severodonetsk seized by Russia last week.

The city’s capture would allow Russian forces to push deeper into the battleground Donbas region, which has become the focus of their offensive since failing to capture Kyiv after invading in late February.

“Fighting rages around Lysychansk. ... The city has not been encircled and is under control of the Ukrainian army,” Ruslan Muzytchuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Guard, said on Ukrainian television.

Earlier in the day, Andrei Marotchko, a spokesman for the separatist forces, told the TASS news agency: “Lysychansk is completely encircled.”

The announcements come as missiles continue to rain down across Ukraine, killing dozens.

Rockets struck residential properties in Solviansk in the heart of the Donbas, killing a woman in her garden and wounding her husband, a neighbor told AFP Saturday, describing debris showered across the neighborhood.

The witness said the strike on Friday was thought to use cluster munitions which spread over a large area before exploding, striking buildings and people who were outdoors.

Strikes on a southern resort town earlier Friday left 21 dead and dozens wounded after missiles slammed into flats and a recreation center in Sergiyvka, 80km south of Black Sea port Odessa.

The attacks came after Moscow abandoned positions on a strategic island in a major setback to the Kremlin’s invasion.

‘Heavy losses’

Ukraine’s chief diplomat Dmytro Kuleba said Saturday he had discussed a seventh round of European sanctions against Russia with his EU opposite number Joseph Borrell.

Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Ukraine was “suffering heavy losses on all fronts”, listing what he said were military targets across the country hit with artillery and missiles.

The strikes follow global outrage earlier this week when a Russian strike destroyed a shopping center in Kremenchuk, central Ukraine, killing at least 21 civilians according to the mayor.

President Vladimir Putin has denied his forces were responsible for that attack and Moscow made no immediate comment on the Odessa strikes.

Earlier on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed a new chapter in its relationship with the EU, after Brussels recently granted Ukraine candidate status in Kyiv’s push to join the 27-member bloc, even if membership is likely years away.

“Our journey to membership shouldn’t take decades. We should make it down this road quickly,” Zelensky told Ukraine’s parliament.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said membership was “within reach” but urged them to work on anti-corruption reforms.

Norway, which is not an EU member, on Friday announced $1 billion worth of aid for Kyiv including for reconstruction and weapons.

‘Grains going to dry out’

On Thursday, Russian troops abandoned their positions on Snake Island, which sits beside shipping lanes near Odessa’s port.

The Russian defense ministry described the retreat as “a gesture of goodwill” meant to demonstrate that Moscow will not interfere with UN efforts to organize protected grain exports from Ukraine.

But on Friday evening, Kyiv accused Moscow of carrying out strikes using incendiary phosphorus munitions on the rocky outcrop.

During a daily update, Russia’s defense ministry made no comment on the alleged use of phosphorous.

In peacetime, Ukraine is a major agricultural exporter, but Russia’s invasion has damaged farmland and seen Ukraine’s ports seized, razed or blockaded — sparking concerns about food shortages, particularly in poor countries.

Farmer Sergiy Lioubarsky, whose fields are close to the frontline, 30km west of Lysychansk, warned time was running out to harvest this year’s crop.

“We can wait until August 10 at the latest, but after that, the grains are going to dry out and fall to the ground,” he said.

Western powers have accused Putin of using the trapped harvest as a weapon to increase pressure on the international community, and Russia has been accused of stealing grain.

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