MYKOLAIV (REUTERS) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged Russian soldiers to flee for their lives after his forces launched an offensive to retake southern Ukraine, but Moscow said it had repulsed the attack and inflicted heavy losses on Kyiv's troops.
Ukraine said on Monday (Aug 29) its ground forces had gone on the offensive in the south for the first time after a long period of striking Russian supply lines, in particular bridges across the strategically-important River Dnipro, and ammunition dumps.
"If they want to survive, it's time for the Russian military to run away. Go home," Zelenskiy said in a late night address.
"Ukraine is taking back its own (land)," he said, adding that he would not disclose Kyiv's battle plans.
In response, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Russia was methodically pressing on with its plans in Ukraine, adding: "All of our goals will be reached."
The new Ukrainian offensive comes after several weeks of relative stalemate in a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions, destroyed cities and fuelled a global energy and food crisis amid unprecedented Western economic sanctions on Russia.
Russia captured swathes of southern Ukraine near the Black Sea coast in the early weeks of the war, including in the Kherson region which lies north of the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula.
Ukraine, now armed with sophisticated Western-supplied weapons, sees retaking the region as crucial to prevent Russian attempts to seize more territory further to the west that could eventually cut off its access to the Black Sea.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a senior Ukrainian presidential adviser, said Russian defences in the Kherson region had been "broken through in a few hours". It was unclear which line of Russian defence, of which there are many, he was referring to.
Arestovych also said Ukrainian forces were shelling ferries that Russia was using to supply its forces on the west bank of the Dnipro.
Natalia Humeniuk, a Ukrainian military spokesperson, told a briefing on Tuesday that Kyiv could destroy any pontoon bridge or ferry crossing across the river that Russia tried to build.
"The whole area where such a crossing can be built is under our fire control and (any new structure) will be hit," she said.
Britain, a close ally of Ukraine, said on Tuesday that Kyiv had stepped up its artillery barrage across the entire southern front, but said it was not yet possible to confirm the extent of Ukrainian territorial advances.
Vitaly Kim, governor of the Mykolaiv region, told Ukrainian TV: "Heavy fighting is going on. Our military is working around the clock. Liberation of the Kherson region is coming soon."
Unverified reports, images and footage on social media suggested that Ukrainian forces may have taken back some villages and destroyed some Russian targets in the south.
Russia's RIA news agency reported that the Russian-controlled town of Nova Kakhovka had been left without water or power after a Ukrainian missile strike.
However, Russia's defence ministry said the Ukrainian offensive had been thwarted.
It said Ukrainian forces, after attempting to go on the offensive in three different directions in the southern Mykolaiv and Kherson regions, had lost over 1,200 military personnel as well as 139 tanks, armoured vehicles and trucks.
Russia's defensive actions have resulted in a rout of Ukrainian forces, it added, saying air defence units had also shot down dozens of missiles near Kherson.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
Ukraine's Suspilne public broadcaster reported explosions in the Kherson area, while city residents reported hearing gunfire and explosions.
A Russian-installed official in Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying a group of armed people had tried to put up resistance to police in one area of Kherson after hearing about Ukraine's offensive.
One of the people was killed in a shootout, TASS added.
Nuclear plant in focus
Heavy Russian shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, was also reported.
At least five people were killed and seven wounded, the mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians, though its shelling has devastated Ukrainian towns and cities.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24 to wage what it said was a "special military operation" to ensure its own security against an expanding Nato and to protect Russian-speaking communities.
Ukraine and its allies describe the conflict as an unprovoked war of aggression.
The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in central southern Ukraine, captured by Russian troops in March but still manned by Ukrainian staff, has been a hotspot in the conflict, with both sides trading blame for shelling in the vicinity.
Russia's defence ministry accused Ukrainian troops of firing two shells that exploded near a spent fuel storage building at the plant in the last 24 hours. There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian side.
The Russian ministry said radiation levels were normal.
A mission from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is expected this week to visit the nuclear plant, Europe's largest, to inspect and assess any damage.
Ukraine on Tuesday accused Russia of deliberately shelling a corridor that IAEA officials would need to use to reach the plant in an effort to get them to travel via Russian-annexed Crimea instead. There was no immediate response from Moscow.
The European Union is examining fresh ways to pressure Russia to end the war, but France and Germany warned on Tuesday against proposals to ban tourist visas for Russians, saying such a move would be counter-productive.
The Kremlin condemned the proposals as "irrational".
France also accused Moscow of using energy supplies as "a weapon of war" as Russian gas giant Gazprom reduced deliveries to one of its main utilities and prepared to halt flows along the major pipeline to Germany from Wednesday.