By ANDREW MELDRUM and JOANNA KOZLOWSKA – Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine told all residents of the city of Kherson to leave “immediately” on Saturday ahead of an expected advance by Ukrainian troops conducting a counteroffensive to retake one of the first urban areas taken by Russia after invading the country.
In a message on the Telegram messaging service, the pro-Kremlin regional administration urged civilians to use boat crossings on a major river to push deeper into Russian-held territory, citing a tense situation on the front and the threat of bombardments and alleged plans. for “terrorist attacks” by Kyiv.
Kherson has been in Russian hands since the early days of the nearly 8-month war in Ukraine. The city is the capital of a region of the same name, one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and brought under Russian martial law on Thursday.
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On Friday, Ukrainian forces shelled Russian positions across the province, targeting pro-Kremlin forces’ supply routes across the Dnieper and preparing for a final push to retake the city.
The Ukrainian army has recovered large areas in the north of the region since launching a counter-offensive in late August. He reported further success on Saturday, saying Russian troops had been forced to withdraw from the villages of Charivne and Chkalove in Beryslav district.
Officials installed by Russia have reportedly tried desperately to turn the city of Kherson – a primary objective for both sides due to its key industries and ports – into a fortress while attempting to relocate tens of thousands of residents.
The Kremlin has sent up to 2,000 conscripts to the surrounding region to replenish losses and reinforce frontline units, according to the Ukrainian army general staff.
The wide Dnieper River figures as a major factor in the fighting, making it difficult for Russia to supply its troops defending the city of Kherson and nearby areas on the west bank after relentless Ukrainian strikes rendered key points of passage unusable.
The takeover of Kherson allowed Russia to resume fresh water supply from the Dnieper to Crimea, cut off by Ukraine after Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. A large hydroelectric power station upstream of the city of Kherson is a key source of energy for the southern region. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of trying to blow it up to flood the mostly flat region.
Kremlin-backed authorities in Kherson had earlier announced plans to evacuate all Russian-appointed officials and up to 60,000 civilians across the river, in what local leader Vladimir Saldo said was a “organized and progressive displacement”.
Another official based in Russia estimated on Saturday that around 25,000 people from across the region had crossed the Dnieper. In a Telegram article, Kirill Stremousov claimed that the civilians were moving voluntarily.
“People are actively moving because today the priority is life. We are not dragging anyone anywhere,” he said, adding that some residents may be waiting for the Ukrainian army to retake the town.
Ukrainian and Western officials have expressed concern about possible forcible transfers of residents to Russia or Russian-occupied territory.
Ukrainian officials have urged residents of Kherson to resist attempts to relocate them, with a local official alleging Moscow wanted to take civilians hostage and use them as human shields.
Elsewhere in the invaded country, hundreds of thousands of people in central and western Ukraine woke up on Saturday to power cuts and periodic bursts of gunfire. In its latest war tactic, Russia has stepped up strikes against power plants, water supply systems and other key infrastructure across the country.
Ukraine’s air force said in a statement on Saturday that Russia had launched “a massive missile attack” targeting “critical infrastructure”, adding that it had shot down 18 of 33 cruise missiles launched from the air and the sea.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later said Russia launched 36 missiles, most of which were shot down.
“These treacherous strikes on critically important facilities are hallmark terrorist tactics,” Zelenskyy said. “The world can and must stop this terror.”
Air raid sirens sounded twice across Ukraine in the early afternoon, sending residents rushing to shelters as Ukrainian air defenses tried to shoot down explosive drones and incoming missiles.
“Several rockets” targeting the Ukrainian capital were shot down on Saturday morning, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram messaging.
The president’s office said in its morning update that five suicide drones were shot down in the central region of Cherkasy, southeast of Kyiv. Similar reports came from governors of six western and central provinces, as well as the southern region of Odessa on the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s top diplomat said the day’s attacks proved Ukraine needed new Western-backed air defense systems “without a minute’s delay”.
“Air defense saves lives,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Telegram that nearly 1.4 million homes lost power as a result of the strikes. He said some 672,000 homes in the western Khmelnytskyi region were affected and another 242,000 suffered outages in the Cherkasy region.
Most of the western city of Khmelnytskyi, which straddles the Bug River and had a population of 275,000 before the war, was left without power shortly after local media reported several large explosions.
In a social media post on Saturday, the city council urged local residents to store water “in case it also runs out within an hour”.
The mayor of Lutsk, a city of 215,000 in far western Ukraine, made a similar appeal, saying electricity in the city was partially cut off after Russian missiles hit energy facilities. local and damaged a power plant beyond repair.
The central city of Uman, a key pilgrimage center for Hasidic Jews with around 100,000 pre-war residents, was also plunged into darkness after a rocket hit a nearby power station.
Ukraine’s state-owned energy company, Ukrenergo, responded to the strikes by announcing that blackouts would be imposed in Kyiv and 10 Ukrainian regions to stabilize the situation.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, the company accused Russia of attacking “energy facilities in major networks in western regions of Ukraine.” She claimed the scale of the destruction was comparable to the fallout earlier this month from Moscow’s first coordinated attack on the energy grid.
Ukrenergo and Kyiv officials urged Ukrainians to save energy. Earlier this week, Zelenskyy called on consumers to limit their energy use between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. and avoid using energy-hungry appliances such as electric heaters.
Zelenskyy said earlier in the week that 30% of Ukrainian power plants had been destroyed since Russia launched the first wave of targeted infrastructure strikes on October 10.
In a separate development, Russian officials said two people were killed and 12 others injured by the Ukrainian shelling of the town of Shebekino in the Belgorod region near the border.
Kozlowska reported from London.
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