Russia ‘escalates’ attacks in eastern Ukraine, says regional governor

Ninety per cent of buildings in Sievierodonetsk damaged by Russian shelling, says Zelensky

<p>A damaged residential building in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine</p>

A damaged residential building in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine

Fighting has intensified in Ukraine’s Luhansk region as Russian forces try to capture the largest city still under Ukrainian control in the territory, officials have said.

The Kremlin’s forces have their sights on Sievierodonetsk, which is located around 145km (90 miles) from the Russian border on the strategically-important Siverskiy Donetsk river.

In recent weeks, the Kremlin’s forces have pounded it with heavy artillery, with much of the city thought to lie in ruins.

“Some 90 per cent of buildings are damaged. More than two-thirds of the city’s housing stock has been completely destroyed. There is no telecommunication. There is constant shelling,” the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said.

“Capturing Sievierodonetsk is a fundamental task for the occupiers… We do all we can to hold this advance,” he added.

The fighting in the city has grown fiercer, according to the region’s governor Serhiy Gaidai, who described the Russian assaults as “extremely escalated”.

Volodymyr Zelensky meeting with servicemen during his visit to the Kharkiv region

Mr Gaidai said it was impossible to calculate the number of casualties as the shelling was so persistent, adding that Russian forces have dug themselves in at a hotel on the northern edge of the city.

“They cannot advance further into the city and are taking casualties, but we are not able right now to push them out of the hotel,” he said.

In its latest briefing paper, the Institute for the Study of War, said the Russians had not been able to encircle Sievierodonetsk and were suffering “fearful casualties”.

It also said the Ukrainian army and the local Ukrainian population was taking large losses.

Bakhmut, in the Donetsk Region

The situation in nearby Lysychansk, another key Ukraine-held city in Luhansk, is similarly fraught, with shells continuing to rain down on its buildings.

As Russia tried to increase its steady gains in the Donbas, Mr Zelensky visited the northeastern city of Kharkiv on Sunday. Several weeks ago, his country’s army succeeded in pushing the invading troops away from their positions there.

“I feel boundless pride in our defenders. Every day, risking their lives, they fight for Ukraine’s freedom,” he said.

Like other Ukrainian cities, long-distance Russian bombardments are taking their toll though. More than 2,000 apartment buildings have been damaged, the regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said.

A damaged building in Bakhmut, in the Donetsk Region

The Ukrainian army recently recaptured another 5 per cent of the region, but Russian forces hold around 30 per cent of the territory, Mr Syniehubov added.

His comments came as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Moscow’s “unconditional priority” was to capture Ukraine’s Donbas region, which consists of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Shortly before Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on 24 February, the Kremlin recognised them as breakaway states.

The Ukrainian government hopes to receive more long-range weapons from the west to attempt to block Russian advances in the Donbas.

In a sign that the EU’s unity against Russia’s aggression could be under strain, the bloc has been unable to agree to a Russian oil embargo. Negotiations will continue on Monday.

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