The Ukrainian forces reversed a Russian advance in Severodonetsk and recaptured about 20 percent of the strategic eastern city over the past couple of days, the governor of Luhansk province said.
Moscow, meanwhile, said Ukraine forces were retreating from the city after suffering heavy casualties.
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Fierce fighting raged on Saturday in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk – the last two cities still not in full Russian control more than 100 days after Moscow invaded its western neighbour.
Governor Serhiy Haidai said Russian forces suffered severe defeats and were blowing up bridges across the Siverskyi Donets River to prevent Ukraine bringing in military reinforcements and delivering aid to civilians in Severodonetsk.
“Right now our soldiers have pushed them back. They [the Russians] are suffering huge casualties,” Haidai said in a live TV broadcast on Saturday. “The Russian army, as we understand, is throwing all its efforts, all its reserves in that direction.”
Al Jazeera could not independently confirm the claims.
Both sides have suffered punishing losses in street-by-street battles for the Soviet-era factory city, where roads have been riddled with craters and destroyed vehicles.
If Severodonetsk falls, neighbouring Lysychansk would be the last city that Russia needs to capture to have full control of Luhansk province, which along with Donetsk province makes up the Donbas.
The area has become the focus of Russia’s invasion as President Vladimir Putin seeks to rebuild momentum after a failed attempt to take the capital Kyiv.
Russia’s army said on Saturday that Ukrainian soldiers were withdrawing from the city.
“Some units of the Ukrainian army – having suffered critical losses during fighting for Severodonetsk – are pulling out towards Lysychansk,” Severodonetsk’s twin city, which sits just across the Siverskyi Donets River, the defence ministry said in a statement.
It added, however, some Ukrainian fighters were still in the city and the Ukrainian army sought to contaminate the area to “delay” the Russian military operation.
“The Ukrainian authorities – having realised that it was impossible to resist further and to hold on to the industrial zone of Severodonetsk – ordered a mixed tactical unit to mine the tanks containing nitrate and nitric acid in the Azot factory,” the ministry said.
‘Nothing to come back to’
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that Russia used artillery to conduct “assault operations” in Severodonetsk, but Russian forces retreated and Ukrainian troops were holding positions inside the city.
Ukrainian troops were still holding an industrial zone in Severodonetsk, Haidai said, a scenario reminiscent of Mariupol, where a steel factory was the eastern port city’s last holdout.
On Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there had been “some progress” in the battle for Severodonetsk but gave no specifics.
In the city of Sloviansk, 80km (50 miles) from Severodonetsk, the mayor urged residents to evacuate in the face of intense Russian bombardment, with water and electricity cut off.
“The situation is getting worse,” student Gulnara Evgaripova told AFP news agency as she boarded a minibus to leave the city.
Ekaterina Perednenko, a paramedic, said: “I am scared that there will be nothing to come back to.”
Russia reinforces its troops
Ukraine’s military said Russia reinforced its troops and used artillery to conduct “assault operations” in Severodonetsk. But it said Russian forces retreated after failed attempts to advance in the nearby town of Bakhmut and cut off access to Severodonetsk.
Haidai said in a social media post four people were killed in Russian attacks in the region on Saturday, including a mother and a child.
Meanwhile, Britain’s defence ministry said Russia now controls more than 90 percent of Luhansk and is likely to take it over completely in the next two weeks.
Haidai said the progress made in the past two days shows that Ukraine may be able to hold off the Russian attack for that duration, the timeframe for the arrival of new, advanced Western weapons.
“As soon as we get a big amount of Western long-range weapons, we will push their artillery back … and then Russian infantry will run,” he said referring to the new arms aid announced by the Western allies.
Russian troops now occupy about 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory and Moscow has imposed a blockade on its Black Sea ports.
“The combined use of air and artillery strikes has been a key factor in Russia’s recent tactical successes in the region,” the UK’s defence ministry said in a assessment. It warned after launching so many guided missiles, Russia was employing unguided missiles that have “almost certainly caused substantial collateral damage and civilian casualties”.
‘Victory will be ours’
While Russian forces are concentrating on seizing the Donbas in the east, Ukrainian troops have staged counterattacks to try to regain territory in their country’s south.
After seizing most of the Kherson and Dnipropetrovsk regions, as well as the port city of Mariupol, Moscow has installed local administrators, offered residents Russian passports, and taken other steps to consolidate its hold on occupied areas.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think-tank, said Russian-installed officials and troops faced growing resistance among the local population and “an increase in partisan activity in southern Ukraine”.
The institute cited accounts on Russian Telegram channels of threats against locals who received Russian passports.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “certain results have been achieved”, pointing to the “liberation” of some areas from what he called the “pro-Nazi armed forces of Ukraine”.
But the Ukrainian president remained defiant in a video message marking 100 days of the war.
“We have defended Ukraine for 100 days already,” he said. “Victory will be ours!”
Tens of thousands of people have died, millions have been uprooted from their homes, and the global economy disrupted in the war launched by Putin on February 24.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to maintain a dialogue with Putin throughout the war, said it is vital that Russia is not humiliated so when the fighting stops a diplomatic solution can be found.
Ukraine said on Saturday there was no point in negotiating with Russia until Moscow’s forces are pushed back as far as possible towards Ukraine’s borders.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reacted to Macron’s comments saying such calls “only humiliate France” and any country taking a similar position.
“It is Russia that humiliates itself. We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place. This will bring peace and save lives,” Kuleba said.