Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday said fighting was continuing in the key town of Lyman, which Russia said earlier in the day its troops had abandoned to avoid being trapped.
“The Ukrainian flag is already in Lyman in the Donetsk region. Fighting is still going on there,” Mr Zelenskiy said in a late night video address.
A senior aide to Mr Zelenskiy on Saturday posted video that showed Ukrainian forces declaring they had taken control of the key town of Lyman, which Russia said earlier its soldiers had abandoned.
“Dear Ukrainians - today the armed forces of Ukraine ... liberated and took control of the settlement of Lyman, Donetsk region,” one of the soldiers said in the video posted by Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the president’s office
Earlier, Russian troops have left the eastern town of Lyman after the area was encircled by Ukrainian forces, challenging president Vladimir Putin’s claim to have annexed the area the day before.
RIA news agency quoted Russia’s defence ministry as saying the countries troops pulled out of the town “in connection with the creation of a threat of encirclement”.
Kyiv’s troops captured five settlements near Lyman, blockading Russian forces stationed there, military spokesman Serhiy Cherevatiy said on television. The Ukrainian army had moved into the town, he said later.
Losing Lyman is a major setback for Russia after Mr Putin proclaimed the annexation of the Donetsk region, along with three others, at a ceremony in Moscow on Friday which has been condemned by Kyiv and the West as a farce.
Russia had 5,000 to 5,500 troops at Lyman but their numbers may be lower because of casualties and troops trying unsuccessfully to break out, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern forces said.
“The Russian grouping in the area of Lyman is surrounded,” the spokesman, Serhii Cherevatyi, said on television.
The Russian defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russia has used Lyman as a logistics and transport hub for its operations in the north of the Donetsk region. Its fall would be Ukraine’s biggest battlefield gain since a lightning counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region last month.
The Ukrainian military spokesman said the capture of Lyman would allow Kyiv to advance into the Luhansk region, whose full capture Moscow announced at the beginning of July after weeks of slow, grinding advances.
“Lyman is important because it is the next step towards the liberation of the Ukrainian Donbas. It is an opportunity to go further to Kreminna and Severodonetsk, and it is psychologically very important,” he said.
Earlier Russian troops were mounting unsuccessful attempts to break out of the encirclement, Cherevatyi said.
“Some are surrendering, they have a lot of killed and wounded, but the operation is not yet over,” he said.
Ukraine’s exiled governor of Luhansk said Russian forces had sought safe passage out of the encirclement, but Ukraine rejected the request. The Ukrainian general staff told Reuters it had no such information.
Putin proclaimed the Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to be Russian land in Friday’s ceremony – a swathe of territory equal to about 18 per cent of Ukraine’s total surface land area.
Ukraine and its Western allies branded Russia’s move as illegal. Kyiv vowed to continue liberating its land of Russian forces and said it would not hold peace talks with Moscow while Putin remained as president.
Meanwhile, the director general of Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was detained by a Russian patrol, Energoatom, the state-owned company in charge of the plant said on Saturday.
Ihor Murashov was detained on his way from Europe’s largest nuclear plant to the town of Enerhodar around 4pm local time (1pm Irish time) on Friday, company chief Petro Kotin said in a statement.
"He was taken out of the car, and with his eyes blindfolded he was driven in an unknown direction," Kotin wrote on the Telegram messaging app, adding there was no immediate word on Murashov's fate.
The Zaporizhzhia plant has been a focal point of Russia's seven-month invasion of Ukraine, as Moscow and Kyiv accuse each other of shelling the facility, risking a nuclear disaster.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called for area around the plant, which is staffed by Ukrainians, to be demilitarised.
Murashov “bears main and exclusive responsibility for the nuclear and radiation safety” of the plant and his detention “jeopardises the safety of operation of Ukraine and Europe’s largest nuclear power plant”, Kotin said.
He called on Russian forces to “stop immediately the acts of nuclear terrorism towards the management and personnel” of the plant and release Murashov. – Reuters