Russian missiles strike across Ukraine, says Kyiv
KYIV, June 25: Russian missiles rained down across Ukraine on Saturday, hitting military facilities in the west and the north as well as a southern city as the biggest land conflict in Europe since World War Two entered its fifth month.
Russian artillery and air strikes pounded the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in the eastern Luhansk region on Friday, smashing into a chemical plant where hundreds of civilians were trapped, a Ukrainian official said on Saturday.
Ukraine said on Friday its troops had been ordered to retreat from Sievierodonetsk as there was very little left to defend after weeks of intense fighting, marking the biggest reversal for Ukraine since losing the port of Mariupol in May.
News of the withdrawal came four months to the day since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops over the border, unleashing a conflict that has killed thousands, uprooted millions and disrupted the global economy.
"48 cruise missiles. At night. Throughout whole Ukraine," Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. "Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, cause panic and make people be afraid."
The latest Russian advances appeared to bring Moscow closer to taking full control of Luhansk, one of Putin's objectives, and sets the stage for Lysychansk to become the next main focus. Vitaly Kiselev, an official in the Interior Ministry of the separatist Luhansk People's Republic - recognised only by Russia - told Russia's TASS news agency that it would take another week and a half to secure full control of Lysychansk.
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces attacked Sievierodonetsk's industrial zone and also attempted to enter and blockade Lysychansk on Saturday.
"There was an air strike at Lysychansk. Sievierodonetsk was hit by artillery," Gaidai said on the Telegram messaging app, adding that the Azot chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk and the villages of Synetsky and Pavlograd and others has been shelled.
He made no mention of casualties at the Azot plant and Reuters could not immediately verify the information. Gaidai said 17 people had been evacuated on Friday from Lysychansk by police officers, rescuers and volunteers.
Kharatin Starskyi, the press officer of a Ukrainian National Guard brigade, said on television on Saturday that the flow of information about the withdrawal from Sievierodonetsk had been delayed to protect troops on the ground.
"During the last (several) days, an operation was conducted to withdraw our troops," Starskyi said.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called a "special military operation", but abandoned an early advance on the capital Kyiv in the face of fierce resistance by Ukrainian fighters with the help of Western weapons.
Since then Moscow and its proxies have focused on the south and Donbas, an eastern territory made up of Luhansk and its neighbour Donetsk, deploying overwhelming artillery. -REUTERS