Thousands evacuated in path of renewed Russian ground offensive

Thousands more civilians have fled Russia’s renewed ground offensive in Ukraine’s north-east that has targeted towns and villages with a barrage of artillery and mortar fire, officials have said.

The intense battles have forced at least one Ukrainian unit to withdraw in the Kharkiv region, capitulating more land to Russian forces across less defended settlements in the so-called contested “grey zone” along the Russian border.

Meanwhile, an apartment block partially collapsed in the Russian border city of Belgorod on Sunday, leaving at least eight dead and 20 injured. Russian officials blamed Ukrainian shelling for the building’s destruction.

At least 4,000 civilians have fled the Kharkiv region since Friday, when Moscow’s forces launched the operation, governor Oleh Syniehubov said in a social media statement.

Heavy fighting raged on Sunday along the north-east front line, where Russian forces attacked 27 settlements in the past 24 hours, he said.

Building collapse
Russian officials said the building was hit by Ukrainian shelling in Belgorod, Russia (Russian Emergency Ministry/AP)

It comes after Russia stepped up attacks in March targeting energy infrastructure and settlements, which analysts predicted were a concerted effort by Moscow to shape conditions for an offensive.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said disrupting Russia’s offensive in the area is a priority, and that Kyiv’s troops are continuing counter-offensive operations in seven villages around the Kharkiv region.

“Disrupting the Russian offensive intentions is our number one task now,” he said. “Whether we succeed in that task depends on every soldier, every sergeant, every officer.”

Burning buildings
A man lies on the ground as he watches his burning house destroyed by a Russian air strike in Vovchansk, Ukraine (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

Ukraine’s leadership has not confirmed Moscow’s gains.

A Ukrainian unit said it had been forced to retreat in some areas and Russian forces had captured at least one more village late on Saturday.

In a video on Saturday evening, the Hostri Kartuzy unit, part of the special forces’ detachment of Ukraine’s national guard, said it was fighting for control of the village of Hlyboke.

“Today, during heavy fighting, our defenders were forced to withdraw from a few more of their positions, and today, another settlement has come completely under Russian control. As of 2000, fighting for the village of Hlyboke is ongoing,” the fighters said in the clip.

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

Seven months later, Ukraine’s army pushed them out of Kharkiv. The bold counter-attack helped persuade Western countries that Ukraine could defeat Russia on the battlefield and merited military support.

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