KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces are raising “true hell” in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, despite assessments they were taking an operational pause, a regional governor said Saturday, while another Ukrainian official urged people in Russian-occupied southern areas to evacuate quickly “by all possible means" before a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Deadly Russian shelling was reported in Ukraine’s east and south.
The governor of the eastern Luhansk region, Serhyi Haidai, said Russia launched more than 20 artillery, mortar and rocket strikes on the region overnight and its forces were pressing toward the border with the Donetsk region.
“We are trying to contain the Russians’ armed formations along the entire front line,” Haidai wrote on Telegram.
Last week, Russia captured the last major stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk, the city of Lysychansk. Analysts predicted Moscow's troops likely would take some time to rearm and regroup.
But “so far there has been no operational pause announced by the enemy. He is still attacking and shelling our lands with the same intensity as before,” Haidai said. He later said the Russian bombardment of Luhansk was suspended because Ukrainian forces had destroyed ammunition depots and barracks used by the Russians.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, appealed to residents of Russian-held territories in the south to evacuate quickly so the occupying forces could not use them as human shields during a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“You need to search for a way to leave, because our armed forces are coming to de-occupy," she said. “There will be a massive fight.”
Speaking at a news conference late Friday, Vereshchuk said a civilian evacuation effort was underway for parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. She declined to give details, citing safety.
It was not clear how civilians were expected to safely leave Russian-controlled areas while missile strikes and artillery shelling continue in surrounding areas, whether they would be allowed to depart or even hear the government's appeal.
The war’s death toll continued to rise.
Five people were killed and eight more wounded in Russian shelling Friday of Siversk and Semyhirya in the Donetsk region, its governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, wrote Saturday on Telegram.
In the city of Sloviansk, named as a likely next target of Russia’s offensive, rescuers pulled a 40-year-old man from the rubble of a building destroyed Saturday by shelling. Kyrylenko said multiple people were under the debris.
Russian missiles also killed two people and wounded three others Saturday in the southern city of Kryvyi Rih, according to regional authorities.
“They deliberately targeted residential areas,” Valentyn Reznichenko, governor of the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region, said on Telegram. Kryvyi Rih’s mayor, Oleksandr Vilkul, asserted on Facebook that cluster munitions had been used and urged residents not to approach unfamiliar objects in the streets. More explosions were reported Saturday evening.
Kryvyi Rih is the hometown of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who visited Friday to meet with Vilkul and the brigadier general who commands troops in the region. Zelenskyy's office said he was briefed on the “construction of defensive structures,” the support of the troops, the supply of food and medicine to the city and the help given people who had fled to Kryvyi Rih after being driven out of their homes elsewhere in Ukraine.
In northeast Ukraine, a Russian rocket strike on Saturday hit the center of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, injuring six people, including a 12-year-old girl, authorities said.
“An Iskander ballistic missile was probably used," the Kharkiv regional prosecutor’s office said. "One of the missiles hit a two-story building, which led to its destruction. Neighboring houses were damaged.”
The city has been targeted throughout the war, including several times in the past week. As survivor Valentina Mirgorodksaya dabbed at a cut on her cheek, first responders warily inspected the building shattered in Saturday's strike.
Mykolaiv Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych reported on Telegram that six Russian missiles were fired at his city in southern Ukraine near the Black Sea, but caused no casualties.
“On this day alone, Russia hit Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, Krivyi Rih, villages in the Zaporizhzhia region,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. “It hit residential areas, absolutely consciously and on purpose. ... For days on end, the brutal strikes of Russian artillery … don’t stop. Such terrorist action can be stopped only with weapons — modern and powerful ones.”
Russian defense officials claimed Saturday that their forces destroyed a hangar housing U.S. howitzers in the Donetsk region, near the town of Chasiv Yar. There was no immediate response from Ukraine.
In other developments on Saturday:
— Zelenskyy dismissed several ambassadors, including Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, who has been an outspoken advocate of Kyiv’s cause but also ruffled feathers in Berlin. He was persistently critical of Germany’s perceived slowness to provide heavy weapons. He also faced criticism for an interview in which he defended Stepan Bandera, a controversial World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Melnyk was only speaking for himself. Zelenskyy said the dismissals of the ambassadors were part of a routine rotation. Melnyk had served in the post since 2015.
— Ukraine’s national police force said it was opening a criminal investigation into the Russian military’s alleged destruction of crops in the southern Kherson region. In a Telegram post, it accused Russian troops of not allowing residents to put out fires in fields and otherwise sabotaging the harvest.
— The British Defense Ministry said Russian forces in Ukraine were now being armed with “obsolete or inappropriate equipment,” including MT-LB armored vehicles taken out of long-term storage that do not provide the same protection as modern tanks.
“While MT-LBS have previously been in service in support roles on both sides, Russia long considered them unsuitable for most frontline infantry transport roles,” the British ministry said on Twitter.
— Ukraine’s sports minister, Vadym Gutzeit, said 100 Ukrainian athletes and coaches have been killed either on the battlefield or from Russian shelling, while 22 were captured by Russian forces. In a Facebook post, Gutzeit said more than 3,000 athletes are now in uniform.
Associated Press journalists across Ukraine contributed.
Follow AP’s coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine