Russian forces are now in control of most of Severodonetsk, the epicenter of the bloody battle for Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
Street fighting continued to rage on Saturday in the eastern city, where Russian soldiers and Ukrainian troops are still locked in battle.
“The situation remains difficult. Fighting continues, but unfortunately, most of the city is under Russian control. Some positional battles are taking place in the streets,” said Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk region, which makes up Donbas along with the neighboring Donetsk region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that the fight for the strategic city may dictate the outcome of the war in the east of the country.
“Severodonetsk remains the epicenter of the confrontation in Donbas,” Zelensky said during his nightly address on Wednesday.
“This is a very fierce battle, very difficult … Probably one of the most difficult throughout this war,” he added. “In many ways, the fate of our Donbas is being decided there.”
Severdonetsk lies in the heart of Donbas, a sprawling industrial region in eastern Ukraine that has seen intermittent fighting since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized control of two territories there — the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.
Haidai said on Saturday that Ukraine were still in control of the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk, where 800 people are reportedly sheltering, after a Russian-backed official claimed that Ukrainian fighters were also trapped there.
Rodion Miroshnik, a Russian-backed leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, claimed on Saturday that up to 400 Ukrainian fighters were taking refuge in the factory complex, hiding alongside civilians in bomb shelters, and that negotiations for their surrender and the safe evacuation of civilians were ongoing.
“The combatants are trying to make demands, namely to allow them to leave the territory of the chemical plant together with the hostages and to provide a corridor to go to Lysychansk. Such demands are unacceptable and will not be taken into consideration,” Miroshnik said.
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Death toll climbs in Mariupol
Further south in Mariupol, an additional 24 deaths of children were reported by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office on Saturday, following Russian shelling during a months-long siege in the southern port city.
The blockade ended last month after Russian forces took control of the Azovstal steel plant where Ukrainian forces had holed up.
This brings the total death toll of minors during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to 287, the Prosecutor General’s Office said in a Telegram post. More than 492 children have been injured during the war, according to the statement.
The statement added that these figures are not complete, as work is underway to verify the deaths of children in other places where there is active fighting.
The office also said that 1,971 educational institutions have been damaged by Russian bombardments, with 194 of them having been completely destroyed.
On May 25, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, Petro Andrushchenko — who has also moved to Ukrainian-held territory — told CNN that Mariupol town hall officials believe at least 22,000 residents of the city were killed during three months of war.
The news comes as the city is battling a potential cholera outbreak, according to a British intelligence report published on Friday.
Access to drinking water, internet connection and phone services are unreliable in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, the report said, reflecting concerns of Ukrainian officials as Russia scrambles to provide basic public services to civilian populations in areas it has occupied.