BAKHMUT, Ukraine - Russian forces said on Friday they had captured ground in Donetsk in east Ukraine, their first claim of new gains after Kyiv grabbed momentum with a counter-offensive that rattled Russia's war effort.
The announcement came as Russia's Orthodox leader said President Vladimir Putin's rule had been divined by God, congratulating him on his 70th birthday and as the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to rights defenders in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Separatist forces in the war-battered Donetsk region said they had reclaimed a series of villages near the Ukraine-controlled industrial town of Bakhmut, which has been under Russian shelling for weeks.
"On the territory of the Donetsk People's Republic, a grouping of troops of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, with fire support from Russian forces, liberated Otradovka, Veselaya Dolina and Zaitsevo," they said on social media.
The Donetsk region, which has been partially controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists for years, is a key prize for Russian troops that invaded Ukraine in February.
But Ukraine's forces in recent weeks have been pushing back against Russian forces across the frontlines in the south and in the east, including in parts of Donetsk.
AFP journalists in the centre of Bakhmut heard the sound of heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems near the remains of a smashed bridge over the Bakhmutka river.
Plumes of black smoke
A civilian volunteer from the humanitarian group Vostok SOS, 29-year-old Edvard Skoryk told AFP that there had been "street combat" near his home on the other side.
South of the city, in the direction of the apparently seized villages, occasional columns of black smoke erupted after shells exploded.
Civilians flinched and sometimes dived for cover as projectiles whistled overhead. Occasional bursts of machine gun fire was also audible.
Ukraine's lightning territorial gains in the east and south have undermined a claim from the Kremlin last week that it annexed Donetsk, neighbouring Luhansk and the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
The four territories create a crucial land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014 and together make up around 20 per cent of Ukraine.
In Kherson, the Moscow-installed deputy head of the region said on Friday that five civilians were killed in shelling by Kyiv's forces, as Ukrainian forces push their counter-offensive to reclaim the area.
"Militants from the Ukrainian military fired at a bus carrying civilians on the Daryevsky bridge. Civilians were on their way to work," he said on social media, saying another five people had been wounded.
Kyiv announced this week that it had recaptured some 500 square kilometres in Kherson.
This included around 30 towns and villages, potentially trapping as many as 20,000 Russian troops on the western bank of the Dnieper river that cuts through Kherson.
Ukraine's Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on Friday urged Russian forces to lay down their arms, promising their lives would be spared and they would be safe.
'Safety and justice'
"You can still save Russia from tragedy and the Russian army from humiliation," Mr Reznikov said in Russian in a video addressed to Russian troops.
"We guarantee life, safety and justice for all who refuse to fight immediately. And we will ensure a tribunal for those who gave criminal orders," he promised.
The Kremlin has not only pushed on in Donetsk, but Russian drones struck the central industrial city of Zaporizhzhia, where Europe's largest nuclear power plant is located.
Officials said on Friday the attacks had hit industrial sites, one day after devastating Russian strikes on the centre of the city killed 11 people.
US President Joe Biden had warned Thursday the world is facing nuclear "Armageddon", warning that Mr Putin may use his atomic arsenal as Russian troops struggle against a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
After Russia's invasion over seven months ago, Mr Putin has made thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons. AFP