Ukrainian troops have pressed deeper into Russian-occupied territory in a continuing counteroffensive that has inflicted a stunning blow on Moscow’s military prestige.
As the advance continued on Tuesday, Ukraine’s border guard services said the army took control of Vovchansk — a town that lies just 3km (2 miles) from Russia and was seized on the first day of the war.
Russian troops were also abandoning the southern city of Melitopol and heading towards Moscow-annexed Crimea, the city’s mayor said.
Moscow, however, said at its daily briefing that its military was carrying out “massive strikes” across the Ukrainian frontline.
“Air, rocket and artillery forces are carrying out massive strikes on units of the Ukrainian armed forces in all operational directions,” the Russian defence ministry said on Tuesday.
“High-precision” strikes have also been launched on Ukrainian positions around Sloviansk and Konstantinovka in the eastern Donetsk region, it added.
Al Jazeera is unable to independently confirm military claims made by either side.
Since Moscow abandoned its main stronghold in northeastern Ukraine on Saturday, marking its worst defeat since the early days of the war, Ukrainian troops have recaptured dozens of towns in what appears to be a stunning shift in battleground momentum.
Asked whether Ukraine had reached a turning point in the six-month war, United States President Joe Biden said it was hard to tell.
“It’s clear the Ukrainians have made significant progress. But I think it’s going to be a long haul.”
The US, which has provided billions of dollars of weapons and support, said earlier that it was likely to announce more military aid for Ukraine in “coming days”.
Speaking in the central square of Balakliia, a crucial military supply hub taken by Ukrainian forces late last week, Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said 150,000 people had been liberated from Russian rule in the area.
Ukrainian flags had been raised and a large crowd gathered to receive bundles of humanitarian aid. A shopping centre had been destroyed but many buildings remained intact, with shops closed and boarded up.
Fighting was continuing elsewhere in the northeastern Kharkiv region, Malyar told the Reuters news agency, saying Ukraine’s forces were making good progress because they were highly motivated and their operation well planned.
“The aim is to liberate the Kharkiv region and beyond – all the territories occupied by the Russian Federation,” she said on the road to Balakliia, which lies 74km (46 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Columns of military equipment were reported at a checkpoint in Chonhar, a village marking the boundary between the Crimean Peninsula and the Ukrainian mainland, Mayor Ivan Fedorov wrote on Telegram, according to the Associated Press news agency.
‘Process of exhumation’
In Verbivka, a village northwest of Balakliia, Nadia Khvostok, 76, described the traumatic occupation and the arrival of Ukrainian troops, saying residents greeted them “with tears in our eyes”.
“We could not have been happier. My grandchildren spent two and a half months in the cellar. When the corner of the house was torn off, the children began to shudder and stutter,” she said, adding that they and her daughter had left — she did not know where.
Kharkiv regional Governor Oleh Synyehubov, who travelled to Verbivka, said the authorities were trying to record crimes committed by Russians during their occupation of the area, and recover the bodies of victims.
“We’re asking everyone around about all the places of burial that can be found,” he said. “We have found some places of the burial of civilians. We are continuing with the process of exhumation. So far we know of at least five people, but unfortunately this is not the end, believe me.”
Moscow denies its forces have committed atrocities in areas they have controlled.
During the day, Ukrainian forces repelled enemy attacks in six towns and settlements to the north of Donetsk, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said, but made no mention of captured territory.
Delivery of weapons
In a Tuesday evening address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said about 8,000sq km (3,100sq miles) of the country’s territory had been liberated by Ukrainian forces so far this month, apparently all in the northeastern region of Kharkiv.
“Stabilisation measures” had been completed in about half of that territory, Zelenskyy said, “and across a liberated area of about the same size, stabilisation measures are still ongoing.”
He earlier urged Western countries to speed up deliveries of weapons, calling on allies to “strengthen cooperation to defeat Russian terror”.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba singled out Germany for refusing to provide tanks and armour: “Not a single rational argument on why these weapons cannot be supplied, only abstract fears and excuses. What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?”
Russian forces still control about a fifth of Ukrainian territory in the south and east of the country, but Kyiv is on the offensive in both areas.
With the recapture of nearly all of Kharkiv province, the Ukrainian advance could soon spread into neighbouring Luhansk and Donetsk, where Russia has concentrated its forces for months to expand territory held by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, said troops had already retaken the city of Lyman in northern Donetsk. He identified Svatove in Luhansk further east as the likely next battlefront.
A senior US military official said Russia had largely ceded territory near Kharkiv in the northeast and pulled many of its troops back across the border.
A video from Ukraine’s border guard service showed what it said were Ukrainian troops liberating the town of Vovchansk near the Russian border, burning down flags and tearing down a poster saying “We are one with Russia”.