KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-backed authorities in Ukraine told all residents of the city of Kherson to leave “immediately” Saturday ahead of an expected advance by Ukrainian troops launching a counteroffensive to recapture one of the first urban areas Russia took after invading the country.
In a post on the Telegram messaging service, the pro-Kremlin regional administration strongly urged civilians to use boat crossings across a major river to get deeper into Russian-controlled territory, citing a tense situation on the front and the threat of shelling and alleged plans. for “terrorist attacks” in Kyiv.
Kherson has been in Russian hands since the early days of the nearly 8-month war in Ukraine. The city is the capital of a region of the same name, one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and placed under Russian martial law. on Thursday.
On Friday, Ukrainian forces bombed Russian positions in the province, targeting resupply routes for pro-Kremlin forces across the Dnieper River and preparing for a final push to retake the city. Ukraine has retaken some villages in the region’s north since it launched its counteroffensive in late August.
Russian-installed officials were reported to be desperately trying to turn the city of Kherson — a prime target for both sides because of its industries and key ports — into a stronghold as they sought to relocate tens of thousands of residents.
The Kremlin has poured up to 2,000 conscripts into the surrounding region to replenish losses and reinforce frontline units, according to the Ukrainian military’s general staff.
Dnieper River lat figures as a major factor in the fighting, making it difficult for Russia to supply its troops defending the city of Kherson and nearby areas on the west bank after relentless Ukrainian attacks rendered key crossing points unusable.
Taking control of Kherson allowed Russia to resume fresh water supplies from the Dnieper to Crimea, which were cut off by Ukraine after Moscow annexed the Black Sea peninsula. A large hydroelectric plant upstream of the city of Kherson is a key source of energy for the southern region. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of trying to blow it up to flood the largely flat region.
Kremlin-backed Kherson authorities previously announced plans to evacuate all Russian-appointed officials and more than 60,000 civilians across the river in what local leader Vladimir Saldo said would be an “organised, gradual move”.
Another official stationed in Russia estimated on Saturday that about 25,000 people from across the region had made their way across the Dnieper. In a Telegram post, Kirill Stremousov claimed that civilians are moving voluntarily.
“People move actively because today the priority is life. We’re not pulling anyone anywhere,” he said, adding that some residents may be waiting for the Ukrainian army to retake the city.
Ukrainian and Western officials have expressed concern about potential forced transfers of residents to Russia or Russian-occupied territory.
Ukrainian officials urged Kherson residents to resist attempts to relocate them, with one local official claiming Moscow wanted to take civilians hostage and use them as human shields.
Elsewhere in the invaded country, hundreds of thousands of people in central and western Ukraine woke up to power outages and periodic bursts of gunfire on Saturday. In his last war tacticRussia has stepped up strikes on power plants, water systems and other key infrastructure across the country.
Ukraine’s air force said in a statement on Saturday that Russia had launched a “massive missile attack” targeting “critical infrastructure”, adding that it had shot down 18 of 33 air- and sea-launched cruise missiles.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later said Russia had fired 36 missiles, most of which were shot down.
“Those treacherous strikes on extremely important facilities are characteristic tactics of terrorists,” Zelenskyy said. “The world can and must stop this terror.”
Air raid sirens sounded across Ukraine twice by early afternoon, sending residents scurrying for shelter as Ukrainian air defenses tried to shoot down explosive drones. and missiles received.
“Several missiles” targeting the Ukrainian capital were shot down on Saturday morning, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging service.
The president’s office said in its morning update that five suicide drones had been shot down in the central Cherkasy region, southeast of Kyiv. Similar reports came from the governors of six western and central provinces, as well as the southern Odesa region on the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s top diplomat said today’s attacks proved that Ukraine needs new air defense systems reinforced by the West “without a minute’s delay”.
“Air defense saves lives,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Telegram that nearly 1.4 million households had lost power as a result of the strikes. He said about 672,000 homes in the western Hmelnytskyi region were affected and another 242,000 suffered outages in the Cherkasy region.
Most of the western city of Hmelnytskyi, which straddles the Bug River and had a pre-war population of 275,000, was left without power shortly after local media reported several loud explosions.
In a social media post on Saturday, the city council urged residents to store water “in case it also disappears within an hour”.
The mayor of Lutsk, a city of 215,000 in Ukraine’s far west, made a similar call, saying power in the city was partially cut after Russian missiles hit local power facilities and damaged a power plant beyond repair.
The central city of Uman, a key pilgrimage center for Hasidic Jews with about 100,000 residents before the war, was also plunged into darkness after a rocket hit a nearby power station.
Ukraine’s state energy company, Ukrenergo, responded to the strikes by announcing that blackouts would be imposed in Kyiv and 10 Ukrainian regions to stabilize the situation.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, the company accused Russia of attacking “main grid energy facilities in the western regions of Ukraine.” It claimed the scale of the destruction was comparable to the fallout earlier this month from Moscow’s first coordinated attack on Ukraine’s energy grid.
Both Ukrenergo and officials in Kyiv urged Ukrainians to conserve energy. Earlier this week, Zelenskyy asked consumers to reduce their energy consumption between 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. and avoid using energy-consuming appliances such as electric heaters.
Zelensky said earlier this week that 30 percent of Ukraine’s power plants had been destroyed since Russia launched its first wave of strikes on the infrastructure on October 10.
In a separate development, Russian officials said two people were killed and 12 others wounded in Ukrainian shelling of the town of Shebekino in the Belgorod region, near the border.
Kozlowska reported from London.
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