Ukraine has said its troops are fighting street battles with Russian forces for control of the devastated eastern city of Severodonetsk, where the evacuation of residents was halted after a French journalist was killed in a vehicle used to carry civilians to safety.
Russia has used its superior firepower to make slow but steady gains in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which together make up the Donbas area, after being forced to abandon its bid to seize Ukraine’s two main cities, Kyiv and Kharkiv.
Severodonetsk and neighbouring Lysychansk are the last Ukrainian-controlled cities in Luhansk region, and local officials say their infrastructure and much of their housing has been destroyed by Russian bombardment, and the thousands who remain in the area spend most of their time sheltering in basements.
“The number of victims is rising every hour, but we are unable to count the dead and wounded amid the street fighting,” Severodonetsk mayor Oleksandr Striuk said on Monday, adding that “Russian troops have advanced a few blocks towards the city centre” and that “we have no power and no communications. The city has been completely ruined.”
Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said on Sunday that Russian soldiers had seized the Hotel Mir in Severodonetsk but were unable to advance farther and were taking heavy casualties.
“Unfortunately, we have disappointing news — the enemy is moving into the city,” he told Ukrainian television on Monday.
“They use the same tactic constantly. They shell for several hours in a row — for three, four, five hours — and then attack. Those who attack are killed and then they shell again, and attack again … until they break through a position,” he said.
“Now the battles are very tough, and they are taking place right in the city of Severodonetsk,” he said, adding that there was “a strong smell of corpses” on the outskirts of the city because the Russian army was not collecting its dead.
About 12,000 civilians are believed to be still inside a city that was home to 100,000 before the war, but evacuations were halted after a French reporter, Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, was killed on Monday.
“Today our armoured vehicle went to collect 10 people from the region and it came under enemy fire. Shrapnel from a shell pierced the armoured vehicle and an accredited French journalist who was reporting on the evacuation suffered a fatal injury to his neck [and] a patrol policeman was saved by his helmet,” Mr Haidai said.
French foreign minister Catherine Colonna, who was visiting Kyiv, said: “The death of Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff … killed today while covering a Ukrainian evacuation operation near Severodonetsk, is deeply shocking … France demands that a transparent investigation begin as soon as possible to shed full light on the circumstances of this tragedy.”
Thousands of people have been killed and 14 million displaced since Russia launched all-out war on its neighbour on February 24th. Moscow claims to be conducting an operation to “denazify” Ukraine and “liberate” Russian speakers in Donbas and other areas, and it rejects evidence of apparent war crimes as “fake” and says it is hitting only military targets.