KYIV – Russian forces have blown up a bridge connecting the disputed Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk with another city across the river, closing a possible evacuation route to civilians, local officials said on Sunday.
Sievierodonetsk has become the epicenter of the struggle for control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Parts of the city have been pulverized in some of the bloodiest fighting since the Kremlin launched its invasion on February 24.
Ukrainian and Russian troops were still fighting street by street there on Sunday, Luhansk province governor Serhiy Gaidai said.
Russian forces have taken most of the city, but Ukrainian forces still control an industrial area and a chemical plant sheltering hundreds of civilians.
But the Russians had destroyed a bridge over the Siverskyi Donets River connecting Sievierodonetsk to its sister city Lysychansk, Gaidai said.
That leaves only one of the three bridges standing and reduces the number of routes that could be used to evacuate civilians or for Ukrainian troops to retreat to positions on the western side of the river.
In Lysychansk itself, Russian shelling killed a woman and destroyed four houses and a shopping center, Gaidai said.
The head of the Sievierodonetsk government said just over a third of the city remained under the control of Ukrainian troops and about two-thirds in Russian hands.
“Our (troops) are holding a strong hold on the defense line,” Oleksandr Stryuk told national television.
OVER THE RIVER
After Moscow was forced to scale back its initial campaign goals following the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, it has turned its attention to expanding control in the Donbas, where pro-Russian separatists have held much of the territory since 2014 .
Sievierodonetsk is the last city in the Luhansk province of Donbas still held by Ukraine and its loss would be a major strategic blow. A victory for the Russians would bring them a big step closer to one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goals in what he calls a “special military operation.”
Elsewhere, Russian cruise missiles destroyed a large depot of US and European weapons in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine, Russia’s Interfax agency reported.
The governor of Ternopil said rockets fired from the Black Sea at the town of Chortkiv partially destroyed a military facility and injured 22 people. A local official said no weapons were stored.
Reuters could not independently confirm the various accounts.
Moscow has repeatedly criticized the United States and other countries for supplying Ukraine with weapons. Putin said earlier this month that Russia would hit new targets if the West supplied Ukraine with longer-range missiles for use in high-precision mobile missile systems.
Ukrainian leaders in recent days have again urged western countries to speed up deliveries of heavy weapons as Russian artillery storms the east of the country.
South and southwest of Sievierodonetsk, Russian troops fired mortars and artillery around a number of settlements, according to the General Staff of Ukraine. But it said Ukrainian troops had repulsed Russian attempts to advance into some communities.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield records.
Ukrainian forces have proven to be more resilient than expected, but the US-based Institute for the Study of War said that if they use the last of their stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition, they will need consistent Western support.
Putin says Russia’s actions are aimed at disarming and “denazifying” Ukraine. Kiev and its allies call it an unprovoked war of aggression to conquer territory.
Also on Sunday, the leader of the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk region in the Donbas said there was no reason to pardon two British nationals sentenced to death last week after being captured while fighting for Ukraine.
A court in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic on Thursday found Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner — and Moroccan Brahim Saadoun — guilty of “mercenary activities” aimed at overthrowing the republic.
Britain says Aslin and Pinner were regular soldiers and should be exempt from prosecution for participating in hostilities under the Geneva Conventions. The separatists say they have committed serious crimes and have one month to appeal.
“I see no grounds, conditions, for me to pardon such a decision,” Denis Pushilin was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Aslin’s family said he and Pinner “are not and never have been mercenaries.”