Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Ukrainian forces bombed Russian positions in the occupied and illegally annexed southern Kherson region, targeting supply routes across a major river on Friday while closing in to a full-scale assault on one of the first urban areas conquered by Russia after invading the country.
It was reported that officials deployed by Russia were desperately trying to turn the city of Kherson, a prime target for both sides because of its key industries and major river and sea port, into a fortress while attempting to evacuate tens of thousands of residents.
According to the Ukrainian army general staff, the Kremlin sent up to 2,000 conscripts to the Kherson region — one of four provinces that Moscow illegally annexed and placed under Russian martial law — to offset losses and bolster front-line units.
The Dnieper plays a prominent role in the regional battle because it performs important functions – crossings for supplies, troops and civilians; drinking water for southern Ukraine and the annexed peninsula of Crimea; and power generation from a hydroelectric power station. Much of the area, including the power station and a canal supplying water to Crimea, is under Russian control.
Kremlin-appointed Kherson officials said Ukrainian shelling of a Dnieper ferry crossing killed two journalists working for a local TV station they started under the occupation. At least two other people were killed and 13 injured.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Operations Command, confirmed that the Ukrainian military attacked the Antonivskyi Bridge, but only during an overnight curfew imposed by Russian-installed officials to avoid civilian casualties.
“We do not attack civilians and settlements,” Humeniuk told Ukrainian television.
Previous Ukrainian strikes had rendered the Antonivskyi Bridge inoperable, prompting Russian authorities to set up ferry crossings and pontoon bridges to relocate civilians and transport supplies to Russian troops in Kherson, on the west bank of the Dnieper.
Officials deployed by Russia are trying to evacuate up to 60,000 people from Kherson for their safety and to allow the military to build fortifications. Ukraine’s military reported on Friday that bank employees, medical workers and teachers would be relocated as the city’s infrastructure shut down.
“The situation is really difficult,” deputy head of the Kremlin-appointed Kherson regional administration Kirill Stremousov said in a video he posted on Telegram. “Today we are preparing the city of Kherson as a defensive fortress and we are ready to defend to the last. Our job is to save people, build defenses and protect the city.”
The city of Kherson, with a pre-war population of about 284,000, was one of the first urban areas conquered by Russia when it invaded Ukraine, and it remains the largest city it holds.
Another hotspot on the Dnieper is the Kakhovka Dam, which forms a large reservoir and associated hydroelectric power station some 70 km (44 miles) from the city of Kherson. Each side accuses the other of targeting the facilities. Officials deployed by Russia claim Ukrainian forces partially attacked the facilities to cut off Crimea’s water supply.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claims the Russians plan to blow up the dam and power plant to release 18 million cubic meters (4.8 billion gallons) of water and flood Kherson and dozens of other areas where hundreds of thousands of people live. He told the European Council on Thursday that Russia would then blame Ukraine.
None of the claims could be independently verified.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last month annexed Ukraine’s Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhia regions, although his forces do not control the entire territory. Putin on Thursday declared martial law in the regions to enforce Russian authority in the face of military setbacks and strong international criticism.
In the Donetsk region, two people were killed in Russian shelling of the city of Bakhmut, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the province’s Ukrainian governor. Russian troops have not been able to advance towards the city for more than a month.
In the capital of the recently retaken Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine, nine people were injured in two Russian attacks, according to Governor Oleh Syniehubov. In the city of Zaporizhia, a Russian S-300 missile attack on Friday injured three people and damaged a residential building, a school and infrastructure, Ukrainian authorities said.
“Each blow will not frighten anyone. It will make us stronger,” said Acting Chief of Administration of Dniprovskyi District Volodymyr Hrianysty.
In a bid to keep hostilities from spiraling out of control, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin reached out to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Friday for the first time since May 13 on the phone. defense officials have said the Russians have not responded to US efforts to make calls for some time.
Russia’s stationing of planes and troops at air bases in Belarus has raised the specter of another front on Ukraine’s northern border, although Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Friday: “We’re not going anywhere today… If you don’t want to fight with us, then we will.” not us, there will be no war.”
The Ukrainian Army General Staff has reported an increased likelihood that Belarus could attack to cut off supply routes for Western arms and equipment. The build-up could also be aimed at diverting Ukraine’s resources and weakening its counter-offensive in the south.
While the prospects for peace appear slim, the Kremlin on Friday insisted that Putin was open to negotiations “from the start” and “nothing has changed.” Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin “already tried to start talks with both NATO and the United States before the military special operation” – the Russian term for his war in Ukraine.
Peskov responded to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said earlier on Friday that the Russian leader seemed “much softer and more open to negotiations.”
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