KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) — Russia has promised free accommodation to residents of Ukraine’s partially occupied Kherson region who want to evacuate to Russia, a sign that Ukrainian military gains along the war’s southern front are worrying the Kremlin.
The Moscow-installed leader of Kherson, one of four regions illegally annexed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, asked the Kremlin to organize an evacuation from four cities, citing incessant shelling by Ukrainian forces.
Vladimir Saldo, the head of the Moscow-appointed regional administration, said a decision was made to evacuate Kherson residents to the Russian regions of Rostov, Krasnodar and Stavropol, as well as to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
“We, residents of the Kherson region, of course know that Russia doesn’t abandon their own, and Russia always offers a hand,” Saldo said Thursday.
Russia has characterized the movement of Ukrainians to Russia or Russian-controlled territory as voluntary, but in many cases those are the only evacuation routes residents of the occupied areas can or are allowed to take.
Reports have surfaced that some Ukrainians were forcibly deported to “filtration camps” with harsh conditions. In addition, an Associated Press investigation found that Russian officials deported thousands of Ukrainian children – some orphaned, others living with foster families or in institutions – to be raised as Russian.
As Ukrainian forces sustain counteroffensives in the country’s east and south to recapture occupied areas, Russian troops have retreated from some areas they overran soon after invading the country in late February.
The Ukrainian gains and an Oct. 8 truck bomb explosion on a prized bridge linking Russia to Crimea have led to domestic criticism of the Kremlin’s handling of the war and increased pressure on Putin to do more to turn the tide in Russia’s favor.
The evacuation announcement came as Ukrainian forces pushed deeper into the Kherson region, albeit at a slower pace than a few weeks ago. Ukrainian forces reported retaking 75 settlements in the region in the last month, Ukraine’s Ministry for Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories said late Thursday night.
A similar campaign in eastern Ukraine resulted in 502 settlements in the Kharkiv region, 43 in the Donetsk region and seven in Luhansk region returning to Ukrainian control, the ministry said.
Putin illegally annexed Kherson, as well as the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine last month following “referendums” in the four regions that Kyiv and the West denounced as a sham.
Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, vowed Friday that his forces would succeed in “getting ours back.”
“No one and nothing will stop us,” Zaluzhny said in a video message. “We have buried the myth of the invincibility of the Russian army.”
While reiterating calls for local residents to evacuate to Russia, Saldo’s deputy, Kirill Stremousov, also insisted the evacuation preparations did not mean the Russian-installed officials anticipated Ukrainian forces taking all of the Kherson region.
“No one’s retreating. … No one is planning to leave the territory of the Kherson region,” he said.
Early Friday, Russia continued missile strikes on critical infrastructure that started Monday in retaliation for the explosion on the Moscow-funded bridge that links Crimea to the Russian mainland.
In the last 24 hours, at least nine civilians were killed and 15 were wounded, the Ukrainian president’s office reported Friday morning. The victims included seven people who died after a missile strike in the city of Mykolaiv, where a residential building was destroyed, the regional governor, Vitaliy Kim, said.
Multiple Russian missile strikes shook the city of Zaphorizhzhia overnight. The capital of the annexed region remains in Ukrainian hands and has come under repeated bombardment as Ukraine pushes its southern counteroffensive.
Several explosions were reported overnight at infrastructure facilities, causing fires, regional Gov, Oleksandr Starukh said. There were no victims in preliminary reports, and further details about specific damage were unavailable.
Starukh told Ukrainian state television that Russian soldiers remained unable to enter the city but their “missiles remind us of the evil and grief that the army of the occupiers carries.”
In addition to the missile strikes on the regional capital, there was also shelling in three cities closer to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. In Nikopol, Marhanets, Chervonohryhorivka, drone and artillery strikes destroyed residential buildings and damaged water supply and power lines.
The regional capital is about 100 miles by road from the plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Two days ago, it was forced to revert to diesel-fueled generator power to maintain its reactor cooling systems after an Russian missile attack on distant electrical substation.
Friday is Defender’s Day in Ukraine, but celebrations were muted because of the war. In Kyiv, a concert at the central opera house was canceled because of planned, rotating power outages across the city as repairs to the city’s energy infrastructure continue following Russia’s wide-ranging missile attacks.
Missile, drone and rocket attacks on Ukraine have kept the country on edge with air raid sirens occurring more frequently and bringing a heightened sense of urgency after Monday’s strike killed 19 people and wounded more than 100, including many in the capital.
Putin has vowed to retaliate harshly if Ukraine or its allies strike Russian territory, including the annexed regions of Ukraine. Russian officials reported Friday that Ukrainian shelling blew up an ammunition depot in Russia’s Belgorod region on the border with Ukraine.
An unspecified number of people were killed and wounded in the incident, according to Russia’s Investigative Committee. Unconfirmed media reports said three Russian National Guard officers were killed and more than 10 were wounded.
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