KYIV (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - Russian forces cut off all routes for evacuating citizens from the eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk by destroying the last bridge linking it to a Ukrainian held city on the other side of the river, a Ukrainian official said.
Pro-Moscow separatists claimed the last bridge out of Sievierodonetsk had been destroyed and Ukrainian defenders there must now surrender or die. Ukraine said there was still another way out although it was severely damaged.
Hundreds of civilians in Sievierodonetsk were sheltering in the city’s Azot chemical plant, creating a scenario similar to the fall of the southern port city of Mariupol, where hundreds of people were trapped for weeks in the Azovstal steelworks.
Regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said fighting was raging and Ukrainian forces were defending building by building. “The battles are so fierce that fighting for not just a street but for a single high-rise building can last for days,” he said on social media yesterday (Mon).
Russian forces now controlled about 70 per cent of Sievierodonetsk, he said, and were destroying it “quarter by quarter” in one of the bloodiest assaults since they launched their invasion on Feb 24.
“Russians continue to storm the city, having a significant advantage in artillery they have somewhat pushed back the Ukrainian soldiers,” said Mr Gaidai.
He described the situation of Ukrainian soldiers holding out in the city as “difficult, but under control”.
But he said the destruction of the last bridge across the river to the twin city of Lysychansk meant any civilians still in Sievierodonetsk were trapped, and it was impossible to deliver humanitarian supplies.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video address on Sunday that Russia was trying to pour military reserves into the Donbas and that severe fighting was ongoing “literally for every metre”.
“The key tactical goal of the occupiers has not changed: they are pressing in Sievierodonetsk, severe fighting is ongoing there - literally for every metre,” Mr Zelensky said.
Mr Zelensky said attacks that resulted in child casualties had created a lasting image of Russia for the rest of the world.
“These very facts will underscore the way in which Russia is seen by the world,” he said.
“Not Peter the Great, not Lev Tolstoy, but children injured and killed in Russian attacks,” he said, in an apparent reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks last week comparing Moscow’s military campaign to Russian emperor Peter the Great’s 18th century conquest of lands held by Sweden.
He said the battle for eastern Donbas would go down as one of the most brutal in European history. The region, comprising the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, is claimed by Russian separatists.
“For us, the price of this battle is very high. It is just scary,” he said. “We draw the attention of our partners daily to the fact that only a sufficient number of modern artillery for Ukraine will ensure our advantage.”
In Sievierodonetsk, the last pocket of Ukrainian land held in the strategic Luhansk region, Ukrainian troops were fighting street by street to hold onto the city, with both Ukrainian and Russian forces suffering heavy losses, Mr Roman Vlasenko, head of Sievierodonetsk district administration, told local TV.
“Our boys are holding on but the conditions are tough,” he said.
Mr Vlasenko said the city had been without communications and normal services for a month.
Russian shelling had hit the Azot chemical plant area three times, said governor Gaidai.
“About 500 civilians remain on the grounds of the Azot plant in Sievierodonetsk, 40 of them are children. Sometimes the military manages to evacuate someone,” he said.
Mr Gaidai said Lysychansk was also being shelled by Russian forces, and a six-year-old child had been killed there.
In a separate incident, at least three people including a child were killed and four injured yesterday by Ukrainian artillery at a market in the Russian-backed separatist Ukrainian region of Donetsk, the province’s news agency said.
Russia’s RIA news agency quoted a pro-Moscow separatist spokesperson, Mr Eduard Basurin, as saying the last bridge over the river linking the two cities had been destroyed on Sunday.
Ukrainian troops were effectively blockaded in Sievierodonetsk and should surrender or die, Mr Basurin said.
Mr Gaidai also said one crossing was destroyed on Sunday, but there was still another “half destroyed” bridge remaining, though it could not be used for heavy vehicles.
“If after new shelling the bridge collapses, the city will truly be cut off. There will be no way of leaving Sievierodonetsk in a vehicle.”
In Pokrovsk, southwest of Sievierodonetsk, women, children and elderly, some in wheelchairs, boarded the only train evacuating people on Saturday, at the start of a long journey from the conflict zone to safety in Lviv near the border with Poland.
“We held on until the last moment, we didn’t want to leave, but life has forced us to survive,” Lyuba, a woman from Lysychansk, told Reuters Television as she waited for the train to depart. “We are leaving, we don’t know where, to whom, but we are leaving.”
As Mariupol fell to Russia last month, hundreds of civilians and badly wounded Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated after being trapped for weeks in the Azovstal steelworks there.
Ukrainian officials have expressed concern about the fate of troops who surrendered after many were taken to Russia, and say cholera is spreading among remaining residents due to bodies left buried in rubble from destroyed residential buildings.
Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak issued Ukraine’s latest appeal for more weaponry, boiling it down into a list of equipment he said was needed for heavy weapons parity, including 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks and 1,000 drones.
“We are waiting for a decision,” he said, adding that Western defence ministers would meet on Wednesday in Brussels.
Russia issued the latest of several recent reports saying it had destroyed US and European arms and equipment, hoping to send the message that delivering more would be futile.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said high-precision air-based missiles had struck near the railway station in Udachne northwest of Donetsk, hitting equipment that had been delivered to Ukrainian forces. There was no immediate word from the Ukrainian side.
Moscow has criticised the United States and other nations for sending Ukraine weapons, threatening to strike new targets if the West supplied long-range missiles.
Ukrainian forces have proven more resilient than expected, but the US-based Institute for the Study of War said that as they use the last of their stocks of Soviet-era weapons and munitions, they will require consistent Western support.
Mr Putin says Russia’s actions aim to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its allies call it an unprovoked war of aggression to capture territory.
Also on Sunday, the leader of the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk region in the Donbas said there was no reason to pardon two British nationals sentenced to death last week after being captured while fighting for Ukraine.
A court in Donetsk on Thursday found Mr Aiden Aslin and Mr Shaun Pinner – and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun – guilty of “mercenary activities” seeking to overthrow the republic.
Britain said Mr Aslin and Mr Pinner were regular soldiers and should be exempt under the Geneva Conventions from prosecution for participation in hostilities.
The separatists say they committed grave crimes and have a month to appeal.
Mr Aslin’s family said he and Mr Pinner “are not, and never were, mercenaries”.
Separately, the family of former British soldier, Jordan Gatley, said on social media he was killed fighting for Ukraine in Sievierodonetsk.