Intense fighting has been reported around the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk as Russian forces appear to be stepping up an offensive to encircle its Ukrainian defenders.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk – known collectively as the Donbas – were being turned into “hell” and warned that what he called the “final stage of the war” would be the bloodiest.
“In Donbas, the occupiers are trying to increase pressure. There’s hell, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Zelenskiy said. “The brutal and absolutely pointless bombing of Severodonetsk … 12 dead and dozens wounded in just one day. The bombing and shelling of other cities, the air and missile strikes of the Russian army – all this is not just hostilities during the war.”
According to multiple sources, Russian troops were pushing west of the Russian-occupied town of Popasna and also attempting to gain ground to the north of Severodonetsk, advancing more than 10km in at least one region with residents fleeing under shellfire.
The focus of the main Russian advance appeared to be the town of Soledar amid speculation that their initial aim was to cut one of the main supply routes to thousands of Ukrainian defenders, who are outnumbered by Russian forces.
Severodonetsk, and the Ukrainian forces there, are particularly vulnerable, with Russian forces threatening from three sides and the operation would put one of the remaining areas of the Luhansk region under Ukrainian control under threat.
Russia has turned Donbas region into hell, says Zelenskiy – video
According to the governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the city of Bakhmut, to the west of Popasna, has been under constant airstrikes with Russian troops approaching the town. Severodonetsk also came under heavy attack. Its mayor, Oleksandr Striuk, said 12 civilians had been killed in the past day and up to 15,000 civilians were sheltering in the city’s bomb shelters.
“The Russian army has started very intensive destruction of the town of Severodonetsk, the intensity of shelling doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying house by house,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said via his Telegram channel.
“We do not know how many people died, because it is simply impossible to go through and look at every apartment,” he said. Hadai said at least three people had been killed when shelling hit a school in which they were sheltering.
The Institute of War thinktank reported “intensifying” Russian operations north and west of Popasna in “preparation for an offensive towards Severodonetsk”.
The Ukrainian general staff said 260 service personnel withdrawn from the Kharkiv city area had arrived to replace the significant combat losses, and phone intercepts of newly arrived Russian soldiers suggested they were “shocked by the intensity of the fighting there” in comparison with what they had seen around Kharkiv.
British military intelligence said on Friday Russia was likely to further reinforce its operations in Donbas once it finally secured the southern port city of Mariupol, the scene of a weeks-long siege and Russia’s most significant success in an otherwise faltering campaign.
It said as many as 1,700 soldiers were likely to have surrendered at the Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol, matching a similar number released on Thursday by Moscow.
Ukrainian officials have declined to comment on the number, saying it could endanger rescue efforts.
The commander of the Azov regiment that has been defending the steelworks said in a video published on Friday that civilians and heavily wounded fighters had been evacuated from the site, giving no further clue about the fate of the rest of its defenders.
“We have constantly emphasised the three most important conditions for us: civilians, wounded and dead,” Lt Col Denys Prokopenko said in the video shared on the Telegram messaging app. “The civilians have been evacuated. The heavily wounded received the necessary assistance and they were evacuated, to be later exchanged and delivered to territory controlled by Ukraine.”
The US Senate has pushed through a $40bn package of military, economic and food aid for Ukraine, putting a bipartisan stamp on America’s biggest commitment yet to turning the invasion into a painful quagmire for Moscow.
The legislation was approved 86-11 on Thursday, backed by every voting Democrat and most Republicans. The package now goes to Joe Biden to be signed.
“I applaud the Congress for sending a clear bipartisan message to the world that the people of the United States stand together with the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their democracy and freedom,” Biden said in a written statement.
Zelenskiy thanked the US. “This is a demonstration of strong leadership and a necessary contribution to our common defence of freedom,” he said in his nightly video address to Ukrainians.
Separately, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on Friday said that the number of cyber-attacks on Russia by foreign “state structures” had increased during the conflict and that Moscow would need to bolster its cyber-defences by cutting the risk of using foreign software and hardware.
“Purposeful attempts are being made to disable the internet resources of Russia’s critical information infrastructure”, Putin said.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report