The head of Russian-annexed Crimea has announced the completion of civilian departures organised by Russia’s forces in the occupied Kherson region, in southern Ukraine, amid a counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army.
“The work to organise residents leaving the left side of the Dnieper [River] to safe regions of Russia is completed,” Sergei Aksyonov said on the messaging application Telegram late on Thursday, after he visited the region with the Kremlin’s domestic chief Sergei Kiriyenko.
Russian-appointed authorities in Kherson have urged residents to cross to the right bank of the Dnieper River as Ukrainian forces make gains in the south. Ukraine’s government compares this to Soviet-like “deportations” of its people.
“The crossing [of the Dnieper] is empty!” Aksyonov said.
He posted photos of himself and other officials, including Kiriyenko, on a riverbank.
On Wednesday, a Russian-installed official in Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, said at least 70,000 people have left their homes in the region in the space of a week.
The Ukrainian army, meanwhile, said on Friday that Russia’s “so-called evacuation” was continuing.
It added that the Russian command in Kherson was trying to “hide the real losses of servicemen” to “avoid panic”.
Kherson is one of the four partially occupied Ukrainian provinces Russia claims to have annexed following its invasion of Ukraine in late February.
It includes the only land route to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and the mouth of the Dnieper River, a vital economic artery that bisects Ukraine.
Officials and military analysts say the looming battle for Kherson city will determine whether Ukraine can loosen Russia’s grip on the south, describing it as one of the most consequential since the start of the war.
Chechen fighters killed
In a sign of Russian forces suffering heavy losses, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said late on Thursday that 23 of his fighters were killed in battles near Kherson this week, with 58 others wounded.
“At the beginning of this week, one of the Chechen units was shelled in the Kherson region,” Kadyrov, who has sent his militia to fight alongside the Russian army, said on Telegram.
The Kremlin ally rarely reveals defeats but admitted that losses were “big on that day”.
Russian forces have promised to turn Kherson into a “fortress” and not surrender the city, which they took over early in their offensive.
Aksyonov said he and Kiriyenko also visited the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – Europe’s largest atomic facility – further north on the Dnieper River in Russian-occupied territory.
He said they “met with the staff and assessed the general situation in the area of the plant”.
Ukraine accuses Russian forces of “kidnapping” the plant’s staff and said last week that approximately 50 employees were held in “captivity”.
Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling the plant, sparking fears of a nuclear disaster.