Ukrainian authorities have ordered a mandatory evacuation of nearly 12,000 civilians from 37 towns and villages near the northeastern front line as Russia ramped up an assault to capture territory already once seized during the conflict.
On Thursday, Ukraine urged civilians to evacuate the eastern Kharkiv region, where Russian forces reportedly are making a concerted effort to punch through the front line.
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The local military administration in Kharkiv’s Kupiansk district said residents must comply with the evacuation order or sign a document saying they would stay at their own risk.
“Given the difficult security situation and the increasing amount of shelling by Russian terrorist forces in Kupiansk community, you have the opportunity to evacuate to a safer place,” the city administration said.
“Do not neglect your safety and the safety of your loved ones,” it said.
The warning came as Russia’s defence ministry announced its soldiers had “improved their position” along the front line near Kupiansk, after reporting advances earlier in the week.
“In the course of offensive operations near Kupiansk, assault teams of the Western battle group improved their positions along the forward edge of the front line,” it said in a daily briefing.
Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar had said the previous day that “the intensity of combat and enemy shelling is high” in the area.
Kupiansk and the surrounding areas of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region were recaptured by Kyiv’s forces last September, but Moscow has since pushed back in the region.
The retaking of those areas strengthened Ukraine’s arguments that its troops could deliver more stinging defeats to Russia with additional armament deliveries, which its Western allies duly provided. But as Ukraine has pursued a slow-moving counteroffensive in recent weeks, Russian forces have struck back in some areas.
Maliar said Russia “has formed an offensive group and is attempting to move forward” in the area in an effort to advance on Kupiansk, an important rail junction.
Russia has concentrated assault troops supported by tank units, aviation and artillery in the Kupiansk area, Ukraine National Guard spokesman Ruslan Muzychuk said on national television.
The Russians have formed eight so-called “Storm-Z” detachments – made up of convicts released from prison acting under military commanders – for the push, and fighting in the area was “intense”, according to Oleksandr Syrskyi, the ground forces commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
“Some positions are passed from hand to hand constantly,” he said.
Ukrainian authorities have periodically ordered evacuations, especially of children, from areas where the fighting has intensified. Officials have previously said the evacuations are necessary to save lives and enable the Ukrainian army to better defend towns from the Russian advance.