Russia ‘captures villages’ in north-east Ukraine as more than 1,700 people flee

Russian forces have captured five villages as part of a renewed ground assault in Ukraine’s north east, the country’s Defence Ministry said.

Ukrainian journalists reported on Friday that Russian troops had taken the villages of Borysivka, Ohirtseve, Pylna and Strilecha, all of which are in a militarily contested “grey zone” on the border of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region and Russia.

Russian officials said they had also captured another village, Pletenivka, in a renewed attack on the region that Ukrainian authorities said forced more than 1,700 civilians to flee.

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Police evacuate elderly people after the Russian attack (Ukrainian Police/AP)

Associated Press journalists who accompanied an evacuation team described empty streets with multiple buildings destroyed and others on fire. The road was littered with newly made craters and the city was covered in dust and shrapnel with the smell of gunpowder in the air.

Clouds of smoke rose across the skyline as Russian jets conducted multiple air strikes. During the short time the team were on the ground, they witnessed nine air attacks.

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Tetiana, 82, with her daughter as she is evacuated from Vovchansk on Saturday after her husband was killed in their house during a Russian airstrike (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

Artillery, mortar and aerial bombardments hit more than 30 towns and villages, killing at least three people and injuring five others, said Kharkiv governor Oleh Syniehubov.

Ukrainian authorities have not commented on Moscow’s claims that several villages in the Kharkiv region are under Russian control.

On Telegram, Mr Syniehubov said heavy fighting continued in the areas around Borysivka, Ohirtseve, Pylna and Oliinykove, but that the situation was under control and there was no threat of a ground assault on Kharkiv city.

Ukraine rushed reinforcements to the Kharkiv region on Friday to hold off a Russian attempt to breach local defences, authorities said.

Evacuees bade tearful goodbyes to their neighbours as they were taken away from their homes.

“You lie down and think — whether they will kill you now, or in an hour, or in three,” said resident Valentyna Hrevnova, 75. “I hope that they (Russians) will not come, but ours (Ukrainians) will be here.”

Vera Rudko, 72, was among those who left.

“We drove through Vovchansk in the city centre,” Ms Rudko said. “I can’t look at this without tears. Everything is trembling. We didn’t sleep these two nights at all.”

Ukrainian forces also launched a barrage of drones and missiles on Saturday night, Russia’s Ministry of Defence said, with air defence systems downing 21 rockets and 16 drones over Russia’s Belgorod, Kursk and Volgograd regions.

One person died in a drone strike in the Belgorod region, and another in the Kursk region, local officials said.

Another strike set an oil depot on fire in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Luhansk region, killing four people and injuring eight more, said Leonid Pasechnik, the region’s Moscow-installed leader.

Russian military bloggers said the assault could mark the start of an attempt to carve out a “buffer zone” that President Vladimir Putin vowed to create earlier this year to halt frequent Ukrainian attacks on Belgorod and other Russian border regions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed on Friday evening that Russian forces were expanding their operations. He also called on the country’s western allies to ensure that promised deliveries of military aid would swiftly reach the front lines.

“It is critical that partners support our warriors and Ukrainian resilience with timely deliveries. Truly timely ones,” he said in a video statement. “A package that truly helps is the actual delivery of weapons to Ukraine, rather than just the announcement of a package.”

The Kremlin’s forces have repeatedly sought to exploit Ukraine’s shortages of ammunition and personnel as the flow of western military aid to Kyiv has tapered off in recent months, with promised new support yet to arrive.

Ukraine previously said Russia was assembling thousands of troops along the north-eastern border, close to the Kharkiv and Sumy regions. Intelligence officials also said they had expected an attack there though Russia’s most recent ground offensive had been focused on parts of eastern Ukraine farther south.

In the war’s early days, Russia made a botched attempt to quickly storm Kharkiv but retreated from its outskirts after about a month.

In the autumn of 2022, seven months later, Ukraine’s army pushed them out of Kharkiv. The counter-attack helped persuade western countries that Ukraine could defeat Russia on the battlefield and merited military support.

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