Zelenskiy describes the Luhansk region as ‘hell’ under Russian artillery strikes

Moscow set to turn off gas flow to Finland as Nato bid sours relations

Russia has said it is close to capturing all of the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine, as artillery strikes took more lives and destroyed more infrastructure in fierce fighting that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy described as "hell".

Ukraine said fighting was most intense in the Donbas – an industrial and coal-rich area made up of Luhansk and Donetsk regions – but noted that long-range Russian missiles also struck other provinces, including Odesa in the south and Kharkiv in the northeast.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday that his country's military was "continuing to expand control over the territories of Donbas", where since 2014 the so-called people's republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have been run by Moscow-led militia.

“The liberation of the Lugansk People’s Republic is nearing completion,” he added.

Russia is focusing its troops and firepower on Donbas after being forced to retreat from Kyiv last month and from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, in recent days.

Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said at least three people were killed on Friday when Russian shells hit a school where some 200 people were sheltering from the almost constant bombardment of Severodonetsk, a strategically important industrial city still held by Kyiv.

“The Russian army has started very intensive destruction of the city… the intensity of shelling doubled, they are shelling residential quarters, destroying house by house,” he said. “We do not know how many people died, because it is simply impossible to go through and look at every apartment.”

At least 12 people were killed and dozens wounded in Severodonetsk on Thursday, in what Mr Zelenskiy called “brutal and absolutely pointless bombing”.

“The armed forces of Ukraine continue the liberation of the Kharkiv region. But in Donbas, the occupiers are trying to increase pressure. It is hell there, and that’s not an exaggeration.”

A Russian missile destroyed a recently renovated cultural centre on Friday in the small city of Lozova, between Kharkiv and the Donbas, injuring at least seven people in a strike that was captured on local security cameras. An 11-year-old child was among those hurt.

“The occupiers have identified culture, education and humanity as their enemies. And they do not spare either missiles or bombs. What is in the minds of people who choose such targets? Absolute evil, absolute idiocy,” Mr Zelenskiy said.

Russia is using artillery to wear down Ukrainian defences and pound out a way forward in Donbas, while striking transport, military, fuel and industrial sites across the country to disrupt Kyiv’s war effort and delivery of western weapons to the front line.

More than 1,500 Ukrainian soldiers are believed to have surrendered to Russia in the Azov Sea port of Mariupol in recent days, but an unknown number remain in the vast Azovstal steel factory that became their fortress as the city was besieged and pulverised by Russian bombs.

Senior officers of Ukraine’s Azov regiment are believed to still be in the plant, and have said they want to ensure the bodies of fallen Ukrainian soldiers are removed and returned to their families.

"I hope that in the near future, relatives and all of Ukraine will be able to bury their soldiers with honour," said Azov commander Denys Prokopenko.

Finland expects Russia to switch off gas flow on Saturday after it refused to bow to a Kremlin demand to pay for supplies in roubles.

Gas accounts for only about 5 per cent of Finland's annual energy needs and Helsinki does not expect the Russian cut-off to cause problems for the country, which this week irked Moscow by applying to join Nato with neighbouring Sweden.

Turkey is the only Nato member to object publicly to membership for the two Nordic states, which it accuses of being soft on groups that it regards as terrorists.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would speak to Finland and Britain on Saturday, and to Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.