KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — After being besieged by Ukrainian troops, Russia withdrew on Saturday from the eastern Ukrainian city it had used as a frontline center. It was the latest win for the humiliating Ukraine counter-attackand angered the Kremlin.
Russia’s withdrawal from Lyman complicates an internationally maligned declaration just the day beforeannexed four regions of Ukraine— an area that includes Lyman. Taking the city paved the way for Ukrainian forces to potentially push further into land now illegally claimed by Moscow as its own.
“The Ukrainian flag is already in Lyman, Donetsk region. The fighting is still going on there. But there is no trace of a pseudo-referendum there,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his Saturday night address.
He was referring to the “referendums” that Russia held at gunpoint in four territories before annexing them – Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.
The fight took place atkey moments in the war Russian President Vladimir Putin. Facing Ukraine’s gains on the battlefield – which he framed as a US-orchestrated effort to crush Russia – Putin this week stepped up the threat of nuclear force and used his most aggressive anti-Western rhetoric to date.
Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed it had inflicted damage on Ukrainian troops in the battle to contain Lyman, but said outnumbered Russian troops were being pulled to a more advantageous position. Ukrainian troops moved into the city, and Zelenskyy’s chief of staff posted photos of the Ukrainian flag being flown on the outskirts of the city.
Lyman has been an important liaison on Russia’s front lines for ground communications and logistics. It is located 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the Donetsk region near the border with Luhansk, two territories Russia annexed Friday.
Ukrainian forces have retaken most of the territory in a counter-offensive that began in September. They had pushed Russian troops out of the Kharkiv area and moved east across the Oskil River.
Moscow’s withdrawal from Lyman sparked immediate criticism from some Russian officials. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov blamed his resignation, without evidence, on a Russian general who was “covered up by the top leaders in the General Staff.” He called for “more drastic measures.”
Meanwhile, on the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula, the governor of the city of Sevastopol declared a state of emergency at an airfield there. Explosions and huge plumes of smoke can be seen by beachgoers at the Russian-controlled resort. Authorities said a plane skidded off the runway at Belbek airfield, and said the ammunition on board had caught fire.
Russia annexed the Crimean Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 in violation of international law.
Russian bombardment has intensified in recent days as Moscow moved swiftly with its latest annexation and ordered mass mobilizations at home to bolster its forces. The Russian call has proven unpopular at home, prompting tens of thousands of Russian men to flee the country.
Zelenskyy and his military have vowed to continue fighting to liberate the areas Putin claimed to have annexed on Friday, and other areas occupied by Russia.
Ukrainian authorities have accused Russian forces of targeting two humanitarian convoys in recent days, killing dozens of civilians.
The governor of the Kharkiv region, By Syniehubov, said 24 civilians were killed in this week’s attack on a convoy trying to flee the Kupiansk district. He called it “сunjustifiable cruelty.” He said 13 children and a pregnant woman were among the dead.
“Russia opened fire on civilians at close range,” Syniehubov wrote on Telegram.
The Ukrainian Security Service, the secret police force known by its acronym SBU, posted photos of the convoy being attacked. At least one truck appears to have been blown up, with burnt bodies in the rest of the truck bed. Another vehicle in front of the convoy was set on fire. Bodies were lying on the side of the road or still in vehicles pockmarked with bullet holes.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said its rockets destroyed Ukrainian military targets in the area but has not commented on allegations that it targeted fleeing civilians. Russian troops have withdrawn from most of Kharkiv but continue to shell the area.
And a Russian attack in the regional capital of Zaporizhzhia killed 31 people and injured 88, Ukrainian officials said. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Russia “almost certainly” attacked a humanitarian convoy there with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Russian officials in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces but provided no evidence.
In another development, in an apparent attempt to secure Moscow’s grip on the newly annexed territory, Russian troops arrested the Russian director general.Zaporizhzhia . Nuclear Power PlantIhor Murashov, on Friday, according to the Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom.
Energoatom saidRussian troops stop Murashov’s car,closed his eyes and took him to an undisclosed location.
Russia did not comment on the report. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Russia said that the “director general of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was temporarily detained to answer questions.”
The Vienna-based IAEA said it “has been actively seeking clarification and hope for a speedy and satisfactory resolution of this matter.”
The power plant has been caught in the crossfire of war. Ukrainian technicians continued to run it after Russian troops seized the power plant, andlast reactorclosed in September as a precaution amid ongoing shootings nearby.
In another fighting reported Saturday, four people were killed by Russian shelling on Friday in the Donetsk region, governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said. Russian troops attacked the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv twice overnight, once with drones and the second with missiles, according to the regional governor.
Russia now claims sovereignty over 15% of Ukraine in what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called “the largest forced annexation of European territory since World War Two.”
Zelenskyy on Friday formally applied for NATO membership, increasing pressure on Western allies to defend Ukraine.
In Washington, President Joe Biden signed legislation providing another injection – more than $12.3 billion – in military and economic aid related to the war in Ukraine.
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