Ukraine fears repeat of Mariupol horrors elsewhere in Donbass

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AP) — Moscow-backed separatists pounded the industrial Donbass region in eastern Ukraine on Friday, claiming to seize a rail hub, as Ukrainian officials pleaded for arms sophisticated Western forces they say they need to stop the onslaught.

The advance of Russian forces has raised fears that towns in the region will suffer the same horrors inflicted on residents of the port city of Mariupol in the weeks before its fall.

Friday’s fighting focused on two key towns: Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. These are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbass and where Russian-backed separatists have already controlled certain territories for eight years. Authorities say 1,500 people in Sievierodonetsk have already died since the war began three months ago. The Russian-backed rebels also said they had taken the Lyman rail hub.

The governor of Luhansk warned that Ukrainian soldiers might have to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk to avoid being surrounded. But he predicted a final Ukrainian victory. “The Russians will not be able to capture the Luhansk region in the next few days, as analysts predict,” Serhiy Haidai wrote on Telegram on Friday. “We will have enough forces and means to defend ourselves.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelesnskyy also struck a defiant tone. In his Friday night video address, he said: “If the occupiers think Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. The Donbass will be Ukrainian.

For now, Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Striuk told The Associated Press that “the city is being systematically destroyed – 90% of the city’s buildings are damaged.”

Striuk described conditions in Sievierodonetsk reminiscent of the Battle of Mariupol, located in the other province of Donbass, Donetsk. Now in ruins, the port city was constantly cordoned off by Russian forces during a nearly three-month siege that ended last week. when Russia claimed its capture. More than 20,000 of its civilians are feared dead.

Before the war, Sievierodonetsk was home to around 100,000 people. About 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city, Striuk said, huddled in shelters and largely cut off from the rest of Ukraine. At least 1,500 people have died there due to the war, which is now in its 93rd day. The figure includes those killed by shelling or in fires caused by Russian missile strikes, as well as those who died from shrapnel wounds, untreated illnesses, lack of medicine or be trapped under the rubble, said the mayor.

In the northeast quarter of the city, Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups attempted to seize the Mir Hotel and the area around it, Striuk said.

Clues to Russia’s strategy for Donbass can be found in Mariupol, where Moscow is consolidating its control through measures such as state-controlled broadcast programs and revised school curricula, according to an analysis by the Institute. for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

General Phillip Breedlove, former head of the United States’ European Command for NATO, told a panel hosted by the Washington-based Middle East Institute on Friday that Russia appears to have “once again adjusted its goals, and it now seems that it is trying to consolidate and strengthen the lands they have rather than focusing on expanding them.”

This aggressive push, however, could backfire by seriously depleting the Russian arsenal. Echoing a UK MoD assessment, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Russia was deploying 50-year-old T-62 tanks, “meaning the world’s second-largest army is running out of equipment. modernized”.

Russian-backed rebels said on Friday they had taken control of Lyman, the major rail hub in Donetsk north of two other key towns still under Ukrainian control. Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych acknowledged the loss Thursday evening, although a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reported Friday that its soldiers had countered Russian attempts to push them back completely.

As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance faded, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western nations for heavy weapons, saying it was the only area in which Russia had a clear advantage.

“Without artillery, without multiple rocket launcher systems, we won’t be able to repel them,” he said.

The US Department of Defense would not confirm a CNN report that the Biden administration was preparing to send long-range rocket systems to Ukraine, possibly as early as next week. “We are certainly attentive and aware of Ukrainian requests, private and public, for what is called a multiple rocket launch system. And I will not preempt decisions that have not yet been made,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

Just south of Sievierodonetsk, volunteers were hoping to evacuate 100 people from a small town. It was a laborious process: many evacuees from Bakhmut were elderly or infirm and had to be carried out of apartment buildings on soft stretchers and wheelchairs.

Minibuses and vans drove through the city, picking up dozens for the first leg of a long journey west.

“Bakhmut is a high-risk area at the moment,” said Mark Poppert, an American volunteer working with British charity RefugEase. “We try to get as many people out as possible.”

To the north, neighboring Belarus – used by Russia as a staging base before the invasion – announced on Friday that it was sending troops to the Ukrainian border.

Some European leaders have sought dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin on easing the global food crisis, compounded by Ukraine’s inability to ship millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products.

Moscow has sought to blame the food crisis on the West, calling on its leaders to lift existing sanctions.

Putin told Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer on Friday that Ukraine should remove mines from the Black Sea to allow safe shipping, according to a Kremlin reading of their conversation; Russia and Ukraine have swapped responsibility for mines near Ukrainian ports.

Nehammer’s office said the two leaders also discussed a prisoner swap and said Putin had indicated efforts to organize one would be “intensified”.

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Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Andrew Katell in New York and AP reporters around the world contributed.

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This story has been edited to correct the fact that 1,500 people died in Sievierodonetsk alone, not in the Donbass region as a whole.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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