Russia said yesterday that it had captured five villages in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region during a surprise ground offensive that prompted mass evacuations, as President Volodymyr Zelensky made an urgent call for military aid.
Moscow’s defence ministry said its troops had “liberated” five villages in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region near the Russian border – Borysivka, Ogirtseve, Pletenivka, Pylna and Strilecha – as well as taking one village in the Donetsk region.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Friday that Russia had launched a surprise attack on the Kharkiv region, making small advances into a border zone from where it had been pushed back nearly two years ago.
“Fighting for villages...continues in the border area,” Ukrainian military spokesman Nazar Voloshyn said on national television yesterday.
There was “heavy fighting” in the border area and 1,775 people have been evacuated, Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov wrote on social media.
Two men aged 50 and 48 were killed and two wounded by guided aerial bomb attacks on the town of Vovchansk close to the border, Synegubov said later.
He posted video from Vovchansk showing windows blown out of a multi-storey block of flats and shattered houses on fire.
The governor insisted there was “no threat of a ground operation” for the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest.
Groups of people fleeing the border area were arriving in vans and cars loaded with bags at a reception centre for evacuees near Kharkiv, AFP journalists saw.
Evacuees – many of them elderly – received food and medical assistance and could sleep in bunk beds.
One 61-year-old woman, Lyubov Nikolaieva, told AFP that she had fled the border village of Lyptsi along with her 81-year-old mother.
“It’s impossible to live there,” said Nikolaieva, adding that her family “stayed there until the last moment”.
“There is constant incoming fire: those guided aerial bombs and mortar shells whistling overhead. It became very scary,” she said.
An aid worker helping evacuate residents, Dmytro Tkachenko, 37, told AFP: “There is a really hard, difficult situation in the directions of Vovchansk and Lyptsi. “There is some (troop) movement and at the moment, it really complicates the evacuation from these areas, because it’s really dangerous.”
The Kharkiv region has been mostly under Ukrainian control since September 2022.
Zelensky said yesterday that troops must “return the initiative to Ukraine” and urged Kyiv’s allies to speed up arms deliveries.
“Every air-defence system, every anti-missile system is literally what saves lives,” he said. “It is important that our partners support our soldiers and Ukrainian resilience with timely deliveries – really timely ones.”
“The package that really helps is the weapons brought to Ukraine, not just the announced ones,” Zelensky added.
Ukrainian forces have multiplied attacks inside Russia and Russia-held areas of Ukraine, particularly on energy infrastructure.
Also yesterday, a missile strike killed three people when it hit a restaurant called Paradise in the Russian-held city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.
The attack using US HIMARS precision rocket launchers killed two diners and a restaurant worker and wounded nine, officials from the Russian-backed administration said.
Officials in Kyiv had warned for weeks that Moscow might try to attack its northeastern border regions, pressing its advantage as Ukraine struggles with delays in Western aid and manpower shortages.
Ukraine’s military said it had deployed reserve units “to strengthen the defence in these areas of the front”.
Military expert Olivier Kempf told AFP yesterday that Russia’s ground operation was most likely aimed at creating a buffer zone near its Belgorod region, recently raided by pro-Ukrainian units, or diverting Ukraine’s resources from the Donetsk region.
“Twenty-four hours after the launch of the operations, it doesn’t look like a big offensive,” said the associate fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think tank.
Washington announced a new $400mn military aid package for Kyiv hours after the offensive began, and said it was confident Ukraine could repel any fresh Russian campaign.
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