Empty streets, shuttered shops as Russian-held Kherson braces for battle

KHERSON, Russian-controlled Ukraine (Reuters) - The streets and boulevards of the Russian-held port of Kherson in southern Ukraine are virtually empty. Many shops and businesses have been shuttered and, at a jetty on the banks of the Dnipro River, a handful of people board a ferry to leave.

As Ukrainian forces advance to the north and east of the strategic city, Russian-installed officials there have evacuated tens of thousands of civilians in recent weeks.

Only a few remain, and some expressed frustration at not knowing what lay ahead.

Compounding the uncertainty are claims and counter-claims by both sides in the eight-month-old conflict, which Russia calls a "special operation", that a nearby dam could be destroyed, potentially triggering floods downstream.

Vladimir, a pensioner who declined to give his surname, said that during the evacuation from Kherson, Russian-installed officials cited the risk of a Ukrainian counter-offensive or of flooding.

"That's the worst thing for us," he said, speaking on Monday. "Not knowing what the future holds."

Nearby, men were fishing peacefully on the waterfront. The rumble of what sounded like artillery fire could be heard in the distance, according to a witness.

Ekaterina, a shopkeeper, said business had slowed abruptly after so many people left. She added that she was determined to stay.

"Why should I leave my ancestral house? My ancestors lived here. My great-grandfather, my grandfather. They built this house with their own hands. Why should I leave? ... What for? I will stay here to the very end."

Russian President Vladimir Putin acted to annex the Kherson region after staging referendums in four Ukrainian regions at the end of September that were dismissed as a sham and illegal by Kyiv and the West.

Ukrainian armed forces have moved closer to the city after regaining some of the territory lost earlier in the conflict, and say that Russia has been reinforcing in the region to defend against a possible assault on Kherson.

Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-backed head of the Kherson region that is partially occupied by Russian forces, has asked citizens on the eastern bank of the Dnipro to begin leaving their homes in an extension of the evacuation zone.

The new area will cover an additional 15-kilometre (nine-mile) zone around the Dnipro, which splits the Kherson region, to include another seven settlements, Saldo said.

He repeated claims, rejected by Kyiv, that Ukraine could be preparing to attack the Kakhovka dam and flood the region.

Kyiv denies it plans to attack the dam, a 30-metre (100-foot)-high, 3.2 kilometre-long barrier, and unleash a reservoir the size of the Great Salt Lake across southern Ukraine, inundating towns and villages.

Ukraine says Russia's repeated claims that Kyiv is preparing to strike the dam, which regulates water supplies to the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula and the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, were a sign Russia itself was considering staging an attack and blaming it on Kyiv and its Western supporters.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)