Russian forces use border-town captives as ‘human shields,’ Ukrainian officials say

Russian forces have captured dozens of civilians in the border town of Vovchansk, a Ukrainian official has said, with a top regional police officer accusing them of using the captives as “human shields.”

Moscow has ramped up its offensive in northern Ukraine. Last week it launched its most surprising operation in two years of war, crossing the northern border in renewed attempts to take Kharkiv, the country’s second most populous city.

Vovchansk, in the northern Kharkiv region, has faced an onslaught, with Russian forces claiming to control surrounding villages, forcing civilians to flee.

The cross-border attack came in a difficult month for Kyiv and marked another example of what’s going wrong for the Ukrainians this year. Their forces are thinly stretched, with much less artillery than the Russians, grossly inadequate air defenses and above all a lack of soldiers. Their plight has been worsened by dry weather, allowing Russian mechanized units to move more easily.

The deputy head of Ukrainian Defense Intelligence, Major-General Vadym Skibitsky, told the Economist last week: “Our problem is very simple: we have no weapons. They always knew April and May would be a difficult time for us.”

Several analysts expect the Russians to broaden the border attacks westwards to Sumy region, which has seen months of raids by Russian special forces.

In effect, the Russians have the manpower to stretch Ukrainian defenses through multiple points of attack hundreds of kilometers apart, forcing Kyiv to guess where and when an anticipated early-summer offensive will focus.

Serhii Bolvinov, head of the investigative department of the Kharkiv regional police, told public broadcaster Suspilne News on Friday that Russian soldiers had kept about 40 civilians in a basement, near their “command headquarters.”

The people are being interrogated, and “those conducting the interrogations call themselves FSB employees,” Bolvinov said, referring to Russia’s domestic security agency, adding that the captives are being used as “human shields.”

He said the captives were mostly elderly people who “didn’t want to evacuate until the very end” and were captured when they finally decided to leave for Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Bolvinov said an elderly Vovchansk resident was killed by Russian soldiers after refusing to obey their orders and trying to escape on foot.

The details came a day after Ukraine’s Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said Russians are taking civilians captive in northern Vovchansk.

“We know of the first cases of executions of civilians by the Russian military,” Klymenko said on his Telegram channel, adding: “In particular, one of the residents of Vovchansk tried to escape on foot, refused to obey the commands of the invaders - the Russians killed him.”

Police investigators had opened a criminal case on the grounds of violations of rules of war, he said, adding that evacuations were underway in that area until Thursday.

CNN is unable to independently verify Bolvinov’s claims and has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry for comment. Russia has not commented on its troops using civilians as human shields or targeting those trying to evacuate.

Russian forces launched airstrikes on Kharkiv Friday, killing at least three people and injuring 28, mayor Ihor Terekhov said in a Telegram post.

Oleh Syniehubov, head of Kharkiv regional military administration, said in a Telegram post on Friday that the district was hit twice by guided aerial bombs.

Nearly 10,000 people have beeen evacuated in the Kharkiv region due to Russia’s renewed offensive, the head of the Kharkiv regional military administration, Oleh Syniehubov, said in a Telegram update on Saturday morning.

The evacuations took place over seven days following Russia’s surprise cross-border offensive into northern Ukraine, which began on the morning of May 10.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky last week postponed all upcoming international visits as the country grapples with the new offensive.

In an interview with news agency AFP aired on Friday, Zelensky said the Russian offensive in Kharkiv region is “not stabilized, it is controlled.”

He said Ukrainian forces are controlling Russian troops’ entry routes into the region but that the Russian operation continues.

He also said there may be several waves of Russian attacks on the region, and emphasized the need for Patriot missile systems to push Russian troops out of Kharkiv.

The United States announced last week a $400 million package of air defense munitions and other weapons.

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