Russia-backed forces claim gains near Bakhmut in east Ukraine

Separatist forces in the war-battered Donetsk region said they had retaken a series of villages near the Ukraine-controlled industrial town of Bakhmut

Updated - October 08, 2022 06:13 pm IST

Published - October 08, 2022 10:17 am IST - Bakhmut, Ukraine

Edvard Skoryk, 30, from the Ukrainian humanitarian group Vostok SOS, helps Ivan Solovyankov, 90, to evacuate from his apartment in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine on October 7, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Edvard Skoryk, 30, from the Ukrainian humanitarian group Vostok SOS, helps Ivan Solovyankov, 90, to evacuate from his apartment in Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine on October 7, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. | Photo Credit: AFP

Russian forces said Friday they had captured ground in Donetsk in east Ukraine, their first claim of new gains since a Kyiv counter-offensive rattled Moscow’s war effort.

The announcement came as Russia’s Orthodox leader said President Vladimir Putin’s rule had been mandated by God, congratulating him on his 70th birthday, and as the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to rights defenders in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Separatist forces in the war-battered Donetsk region said they had retaken a series of villages near the Ukraine-controlled industrial town of Bakhmut, which has been under Russian shelling for weeks.

AFP journalists in the centre of Bakhmut heard the sound of heavy artillery and multiple rocket launch systems near the remains of a smashed bridge over the Bakhmutka river.

“On the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a grouping of troops of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, with fire support from Russian forces, liberated Otradovka, Veselaya Dolina and Zaitsevo,” separatist forces said on social media.

The Donetsk region, which has been partially controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists for years, is a key prize for Russian forces, which invaded Ukraine in February.

But Ukraine’s troops in recent weeks have been pushing back against Russian soldiers across the front lines in the south and in the east, including in parts of Donetsk.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Friday that his forces had recaptured nearly 2,500 square kilometres (965 square miles) in the counter-offensive that began late last month.

“This week alone, our soldiers liberated 776 square kilometres of territory in the east of our country and 29 settlements, including six in Lugansk region,” he said.

He has pushed to punish Russia in other areas, urging Brussels to ramp up pressure on its energy sector - a day after the EU imposed a fresh round of sanctions on Moscow.

The International Monetary Fund also announced Friday it would provide $1.3 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine.

The package will help meet Ukraine’s “urgent balance of payment needs... while playing a catalytic role for future financial support from Ukraine’s creditors and donors”, the crisis lender said in a statement.

‘Street battles’

In Bakhmut, columns of black smoke were seen after shells exploded in the city’s south, while whizzing projectiles sent residents ducking for cover.

Humanitarian volunteer Edvard Skoryk said he had not been able to return to his home in two months.

“That (eastern) part of town has been hit severely... There are street battles every night,” the 29-year-old told AFP.

Ukraine’s lightning territorial gains in the east and south have undermined a claim from the Kremlin last week that it annexed Donetsk, neighbouring Lugansk and the southern regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

The four territories create a crucial land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014, and together make up around 20 percent of Ukraine.

In Kherson alone, Kyiv announced this week it had recaptured some 500 square kilometres - potentially trapping about 20,000 Russian troops on the western bank of the Dnieper River cutting through the region.

The Moscow-installed deputy head of the region said Friday five civilians were killed in shelling by Kyiv’s forces, accusing the Ukrainian military of firing “at a bus carrying civilians”.

Northeast of Kherson, in Zaporizhzhia - home to Europe’s largest nuclear plant - Russian drones struck industrial sites as well as the city centre this week, killing 14 people.

In the more than seven months since Russia’s invasion, Putin has made thinly veiled threats of using nuclear weapons.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday warned the world was facing “Armageddon” as Mr. Putin may use his atomic arsenal, with Russian troops struggling against the counter-offensive.

But by Friday the White House dialed back the alarm, saying the president’s comments did not reflect new intelligence.

‘Foreign agents’

In Russia on Friday, a court ordered the seizure of Memorial’s Moscow headquarters, according to Interfax agency - a ruling delivered hours after the rights group was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Memorial, which has long documented Stalinist crimes, is Russia’s most renowned rights group. Dissolved last year, it was co-awarded the prize along with jailed Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski and Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties.

Meanwhile Russian superstar rapper Oxxxymiron was labelled a “foreign agent” on Friday by the interior ministry. The rapper is one of thousands of Russians who have left the country since the Kremlin sent troops to Ukraine, and has organised concerts in support of Ukrainian refugees from abroad.

Also added to the list of “foreign agents” -- language reminiscent of the Soviet-era term “enemy of the people” -- were popular science fiction writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, feminist politician Alena Popova, and Irina Storozheva, a journalist for Radio Free Europe/Liberty.

Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on Friday urged Russian fighters to lay down their arms, promising their lives would be spared and they would be safe.

“You can still save Russia from tragedy and the Russian army from humiliation,” Reznikov said in Russian, in a video addressed to the invading troops.

“We guarantee life, safety and justice for all who refuse to fight immediately,” he promised.

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