Kyiv, Ukraine – Authorities set up by Russia in Ukraine told all residents of the city of Kherson to leave “immediately” on Saturday before Ukrainian troops would launch a counteroffensive to retake one of the first cities to be captured after Russia invaded the country.
In a post on the Telegram messaging service, the pro-Kremlin regional government strongly urged civilians to use ferries to cross a major river deeper into Russian-held territory, citing tensions on the front lines, the threat of shelling and what it called a planned “terrorist attack” in Kyiv.
Kherson has been in Russian hands since the beginning of Ukraine’s nearly eight-month war. The city, the capital of the region of the same name, is one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and placed under Russia’s martial law on Thursday.
On Friday, Ukrainian forces bombed Russian positions across the province, targeting the supply route of pro-Kremlin forces across the Dnieper River in a last-ditch effort to retake the city. Since launching a counteroffensive in late August, Ukraine has recaptured some villages in the northern part of the region.
Officials at the Russian installation are reportedly desperately trying to turn the city of Kherson — a major target for both parties because of its key industries and port — into a fortress, while trying to resettle tens of thousands of residents.
According to the Ukrainian Army General Staff, the Kremlin sent as many as 2,000 new recruits to surrounding areas to supplement losses and strengthen front-line troops.
The wide Dnieper River was a major factor in the fighting, making it difficult for Russia to resupply its troops defending the city of Kherson and areas around the West Bank after a relentless strike in Ukraine rendered the main crossing point unusable.
Control of Kherson allows Russia to restore fresh water supplies from the Dnieper to Crimea, which were cut off by Ukraine following Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. The large hydroelectric power plant upstream of the city of Kherson is the main source of energy for the southern region. Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of trying to blow it up to flood the mostly flat area.
Kremlin-backed authorities in Kherson have previously announced plans to evacuate all Russian-appointed officials and up to 60,000 civilians crossing the river, which local leader Vladimir Saldo said would be “organized” a gradual, gradual displacement”.
Another Russian government official estimated Saturday that some 25,000 people from the region had crossed the Dnieper. In a Telegram post, Kirill Stremousov claimed that civilians were willing to relocate.
“People are moving aggressively because today’s priority is life. We’re not dragging anyone anywhere,” he said, adding that some residents may be waiting for Ukrainian troops to retake the city.
Ukrainian and Western officials have expressed concern about the potential forcible transfer of residents to Russia or Russian-occupied territory.
Ukrainian officials have urged residents of Kherson to resist attempts to resettle them, with a local official claiming that Moscow wants 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 Saturday to blackouts and periodic gunfire. In its latest war strategy, Russia has stepped up its crackdown on power stations, water systems and other critical infrastructure across the country.
Russia has launched a “massive missile attack” against “critical infrastructure”, Ukraine’s air force said in a statement Saturday, adding that it had shot down 18 of 33 cruise missiles launched from the air and sea .
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later said Russia fired 36 missiles, most of which were shot down.
“Dangerous strikes against extremely important installations are typical terrorist tactics,” Zelensky said. “The world can and must stop this terror.”
By early afternoon, air raid sirens had sounded twice in Ukraine, and residents rushed into shelters as Ukrainian air defenses attempted to shoot down explosive drones and incoming missiles.
Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging service that “several rockets” aimed at the Ukrainian capital were shot down on Saturday morning.
Five suicide drones were shot down in the central Cherkassy region southeast of Kyiv, the president’s office said in its morning update. There were similar reports from the governors of six western and central provinces, as well as the governor of the Odessa region in the southern Black Sea.
Ukraine’s top diplomat said that day’s attack proved that Ukraine needed a new Western-hardened air defense system “without delay”.
“Air defense saves lives,” Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba tweeted.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Telegram that nearly 1.4 million households were without power due to the strike. About 672,000 houses in the western Khmelnitsky region were affected, and another 242,000 in the Cherkasy region were without power, he said.
Shortly after local media reported several loud explosions, much of the western city of Khmelnitsky, which spanned the Bug River and had a prewar population of 275,000, was without power.
In a social media post on Saturday, the city council urged local residents to store water “in case there is no water for an hour”.
The mayor of Lutsk, a city of 215,000 in western Ukraine, made a similar call, saying power was lost in parts of the city after a Russian missile hit a local energy facility and damaged an irreparable power plant.
The central city of Uman, a major pilgrimage center for Hasidic Jews and about 100,000 residents before the war, was also plunged into darkness after a rocket hit a nearby power plant.
Ukraine’s state energy company Ukrenergo responded to the strike by announcing that it would implement rolling blackouts in Kyiv and 10 Ukrainian regions to stabilize the situation.
In a Saturday Facebook post, the company accused Russia of attacking “energy facilities within major networks in the western region of Ukraine.” It claimed the scale of the damage was comparable to the impact of Moscow’s first coordinated attack on Ukrainians earlier this month. energy grid.
Both Ukrenergo and Kyiv officials urged Ukrainians to conserve energy. Earlier this week, Zelensky called on consumers to control their electricity usage between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. and avoid energy-hungry appliances such as electric heaters.
Zelensky said earlier this week that 30 percent of Ukraine’s power stations have been destroyed since Russia launched the first wave of targeted infrastructure strikes on October 10. 10.
In another development, Russian officials said Ukraine shelled the town of Shebekino in the Belgorod region near the border, killing two and wounding 12 others.
Kozlowska reported from London.
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