KYIV (Reuters) – Russia shelled more than 40 towns in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, destroying nearly a dozen high-rise buildings, authorities said on Thursday, as Moscow’s forces sought to surround their Ukrainian foes, outnumbering them in some places.
After failing to seize Ukraine’s capital Kyiv or its second city Kharkiv in its three-month-old war, Russia is trying to wrest full control of the Donbas on behalf of separatists. The industrial region comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.
Russia has poured thousands of troops into the region, attacking from three sides in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces holding out in the city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin, Lysychansk. Their fall would leave the whole of Luhansk province under Russian control, a main Kremlin war aim.
“Everything now is focused on the Donbas,” Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Vadym Denisenko told a briefing.
He said the situation was very tense as 25 Russian battalion tactical groups attempted to surround the Ukrainian forces.
The Joint Task Force of Ukraine’s armed forces said the Russians had shelled more than 40 towns in the region, destroying or damaging 47 civilian sites, including 38 homes and a school.
“As a result of this shelling five civilians died and 12 were wounded,” it said on Facebook, adding that 10 Russian attacks had been repelled, four of its tanks and four drones destroyed, and 62 “enemy soldiers” killed.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said 11 high-rise buildings were destroyed in Sievierodonetsk and eight in Lysychansk.
Zelenskiy has said Russian troops heavily outnumber Ukrainian forces in some parts of the east and Kyiv has been trying unsuccessfully to arrange a prisoner swap with Moscow.
The number of Ukrainian prisoners of war held in the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics number is increasing daily, Luhansk official Rodion Miroshnik was quoted by TASS news agency as saying.
“There are a lot of prisoners,” Miroshnik said. “Now the total number is somewhere in the region of 8,000. That’s a lot, and literally hundreds are being added every day.”
Reuters was unable to independently confirm the battlefield reports of either side.
As Russia seeks to solidify its grip on the territory it has seized, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree simplifying the process for residents of newly captured districts to acquire Russian citizenship and passports.
The Russian parliament scrapped the upper age limit for contractual service in the military on Wednesday, highlighting the need to replace lost troops.
In a late night video address, Zelenskiy, commenting on the new Russian enlistment rules, said: “(They) no longer have enough young men, but they still have the will to fight. It will still take time to crush this will.”
Zelenskiy said this week the conflict could only be ended with direct talks between him and Putin.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West say the fascist allegation is baseless and the war is an unprovoked act of aggression.
Ukraine and the West say Russian forces have targeted civilians and have engaged in war crimes, accusations that Russia rejects. A 21-year-old Russian tank commander was jailed for life this week after being found guilty of war crimes for killing an unarmed civilian.
Police in Lysychansk are burying the bodies of civilians in mass graves, Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said. Some 150 people have been buried in a grave in one district, he added.
Families of the people buried would be able to carry out a reburial after the war, and police are issuing documents enabling Ukrainians to secure death certificates for loved ones, Gaidai said.
Russia has blockaded ships from southern Ukraine that would normally export grain and sunflower oil through the Black Sea, pushing up prices globally. The African Union urged the two countries on Wednesday to unblock exports of grains and fertiliser to avoid widespread famine.
Russia has blamed severe Western sanctions for the food crisis. It said on Wednesday it was ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food but wanted sanctions to be lifted in return.
The economic pressure mounted on Wednesday when the United States did not extend Russia’s licence to pay bondholders, pushing it closer to the brink of a historic debt default.
The waiver has allowed Russia to keep up government debt payments until now.
The European Commission has proposed making the breaking of its sanctions on Russia a crime.
The EU also said it hoped to agree sanctions on Russian oil before the next meeting of EU leaders.
But Russia, for now at least, is not short of money. Oil and gas revenues stood at $28 billion in April alone thanks to high energy prices.
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