KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces pounded the town of Lysychansk and surrounding areas in an all-out attempt to seize the last stronghold of the resistance in eastern Ukraine’s Lugansk province, said the governor on Saturday. A presidential adviser said his fate would be decided within the next two days.
Ukrainian fighters have spent weeks trying to defend the city and prevent it from falling to Russia, as neighboring Sievierodonetsk did a week ago.
“During the last day, the occupiers opened fire with all types of weapons available,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on the Telegram messaging app on Saturday.
A river separates Lysychansk from Sievierodonetsk, and Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, said in an online interview on Saturday evening that Russian forces had succeeded for the first time in crossing the river from the north, creating a situation ” threatening”. He said they had not reached the center of the city, but control of Lysychansk would be decided by Monday.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, second in command of the Svoboda Battalion which was part of the June 24 retreat from Sievierodonetsk, said the Russians had “methodically razed” the town. He described how Russian tanks targeted one building after another, moving after each had been destroyed.
“So they use these tactics where barrages of ammunition are used to destroy the city and turn it into a burning wasteland,” Nazarenko said from the relative safety of Bakhmut, a town to the southwest.
He also said that Russian troops “cleared all potential defensive positions with constant artillery and set fire to the forests to prevent trench warfare”.
Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk are the two provinces that make up Donbass, where Russia has focused its offensive since pulling out of northern Ukraine and the capital, Kyiv, in the spring.
Pro-Russian separatists have held parts of the two eastern provinces since 2014, and Moscow recognizes all of Luhansk and Donetsk as sovereign republics. The Syrian government said on Wednesday it would also recognize the “independence and sovereignty” of the two regions and strive to establish diplomatic relations with the separatists.
In Sloviansk, a major city in Donetsk still under Ukrainian control, four people died when Russian forces fired cluster munitions on Friday night, Mayor Vadym Lyakh said on Facebook. He said the affected neighborhoods did not contain any potential military targets.
The leader of neighboring Belarus, an ally of Russia, claimed on Saturday that Ukraine had fired missiles several days ago at military targets in Belarusian territory but that all of them were intercepted by the air defense system. President Alexander Lukashenko called it a provocation and noted that no Belarusian soldiers were fighting in Ukraine. There was no immediate response from the Ukrainian military.
Belarus hosts Russian military units and was used as a base for the Russian invasion. Last week, just hours before Lukashenko was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian long-range bombers fired missiles at Ukraine for the first time from Belarusian airspace.
Lukashenko has so far resisted efforts to drag his army into war. But during their meeting, Putin announced that Russia planned to supply Belarus with the Iskander-M missile system and reminded Lukashenko how dependent his government was on Russian economic support.
Lukashenko also claimed on Saturday that two Belarusian truck drivers had been killed in Ukraine. Ukraine said the truckers were at a gas station when it was hit by a Russian airstrike in March, but Lukashenko said organs were cut from their bodies to hide evidence they had been slaughtered.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, investigators searched for wreckage from a Russian airstrike early Friday on residential areas near the Ukrainian port of Odessa that killed 21 people.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said investigators were recovering fragments of missiles that hit an apartment building in the small coastal town of Serhiivka. They were also taking steps to determine the trajectory of the weapons and “the specific people guilty of this terrible war crime”, she said.
Larissa Andruchenko said she was in the kitchen making tea around 1 a.m. when an explosion ripped open the doors. At first she thought the propane gas tank had exploded and called her husband to the kitchen.
“And then the lights went out and it was a nightmare. We’re both in the kitchen with glass flying, everything flying,” she said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said three anti-ship missiles hit “an ordinary residential building, a nine-story building” housing about 160 people. Among the victims of Friday’s attack were also four members of a family staying at a campsite by the sea, he said.
“I insist that this is direct and deliberate Russian terror, not a mistake or an accidental missile strike,” Zelenskyy said.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Saturday that air-launched anti-ship missiles generally lack pinpoint accuracy against ground targets. He said Russia probably used such missiles due to a shortage of more accurate weapons.
The Kremlin has repeatedly claimed that the Russian military was targeting fuel storage sites and military installations, not residential areas, although missiles also recently hit an apartment building in Kyiv and a shopping mall in the central city from Kremenchuk.
On Saturday, Kremenchuk Mayor Vitaliy Maletskyy said the death toll in the mall attack had risen to 21 and one person remained missing.
Ukrainian authorities interpreted the missile attack in Odessa as a reward for the withdrawal of Russian troops from a nearby Black Sea island with both symbolic and strategic significance in the war that began with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on February 24.
Moscow described their departure from Snake Island as a “goodwill gesture” to help unblock grain exports.
In other developments:
— The director of a charity helping the family of a Briton captured in eastern Ukraine said Dylan Healy was arrested on April 25 at a Russian checkpoint in the southern Zaporizhzhia region. Dominik Byrne, operations director at Presidium Network, told The Associated Press that Healy is an aid worker and has no connection to the Ukrainian or British military.
Healy is one of at least five foreigners, including four Britons, detained by separatists who accuse them of being mercenaries fighting for Ukraine. Three were sentenced to death. The charges against Healy were announced on Friday.
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