Russian forces occupy Severodonetsk after Ukrainian pullout ordered, mayor says

Russian forces have fully occupied the strategic front-line city of Severodonetsk in Eastern Ukraine after weeks of fighting and bombardment, the mayor said on Saturday.

“The city is now under the full occupation of Russia. They are trying to establish their own order; as far as I know, they have appointed some kind of commandant,” Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on national television.

Ukraine said on Friday its troops had been ordered to retreat from Severodonetsk, as there was very little left to defend after weeks of intense fighting, marking the biggest reversal for Ukraine since losing the port of Mariupol in May. Ukrainian troops have “almost left” Severodonetsk, Stryuk said.

News of the withdrawal came four months to the day since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops over the border, unleashing a conflict that has killed thousands, uprooted millions and disrupted the global economy.

Industrial zone, airport ‘liberated’

Russian artillery and airstrikes pounded the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the eastern Luhansk region on Friday, smashing into a chemical plant where hundreds of civilians were trapped, a Ukrainian official said on Saturday.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia’s Chechnya region, which has troops fighting alongside regular Russian army units in Ukraine, said on social media on Saturday that Severodonetsk’s industrial zone and airport had been “fully liberated.”

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Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces attacked Severodonetsk’s industrial zone and also attempted to enter and blockade Lysychansk on Saturday.

“There was an airstrike at Lysychansk. Severodonetsk was hit by artillery,” Gaidai said on the Telegram messaging app, adding that the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk and the villages of Synetsky and Pavlograd and others had been shelled.

He made no mention of casualties at the Azot plant, and Reuters could not immediately verify the information. Gaidai said police officers, rescuers and volunteers helped 17 people to leave Lysychansk on Friday.

Lysychansk at risk

The retreat from Severodonetsk, if confirmed, would bring Moscow close to full control of Luhansk, with Ukrainian troops in the province largely holding out only in Severodonetsk’s twin city Lysychansk, across the Siverskyi Donets River.

Vitaly Kiselev, an official in the Interior Ministry of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic — recognized only by Russia — told Russia’s TASS news agency that it would take another week and a half to secure full control of Lysychansk.

Workers stand in front of the destroyed farm of 62-year-old Lyubov Zlobina in the Ukrainian village of Mala Rohan, near Kharkiv, on Thursday. (Anatoli Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

As Europe’s biggest land conflict since the Second World War entered its fifth month, a volley of Russian missiles also rained down on military facilities in western and northern Ukraine and on a southern city, Ukrainian officials said.

“Forty-eight cruise missiles. At night. Throughout whole Ukraine,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “Russia is still trying to intimidate Ukraine, cause panic and make people be afraid.”

WATCH | Ukraine concedes the city of Severodonetsk to Russia:

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Ukrainian soldiers concede the city of Severodonetsk to Russia, and a former prisoner of war talks about his experience being captured during the siege of Mariupol.

U.S.-supplied rockets

Ukraine’s top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, wrote on the Telegram app on Saturday that U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, are now working and hitting targets in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

A senior U.S. defence official said on Friday that more Ukrainian forces are training outside Ukraine to use the HIMARS and are expected back in their country with the weapons by mid-July. The rockets can travel about 70 kilometres. Also to be sent are 18 U.S. coastal and river patrol boats.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called a “special military operation,” but it abandoned an early advance on the capital Kyiv in the face of fierce resistance by Ukrainian fighters with the help of Western weapons.

Missiles fired near Poland

Since then, Moscow and its proxies have focused on the south and Donbas, an eastern territory made up of Luhansk and its neighbour, Donetsk, deploying overwhelming artillery.

The governor of Lviv region in western Ukraine, Maxim Kozytskyi, said in a video posted online that six missiles were fired from the Black Sea at the Yavoriv base near the border with Poland. Four hit the target, but two were destroyed.

Vitaliy Bunechko, governor of the Zhytomyr region in the north of the country, said strikes on a military target killed at least one soldier.

“Nearly 30 missiles were launched at one military infrastructure facility very near to the city of Zhytomyr,” Bunechko said. Nearly 10 missiles had been intercepted and destroyed, he said.

In the south, Oleksandr Senkevych, the mayor of Mykolaiv near the Black Sea, said five cruise missiles hit the city and nearby areas on Saturday. The number of casualties is still being determined.

Pressure to reach ‘bad’ peace deal

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Saturday that he feared Ukraine could face pressure to agree to a peace deal with Russia that would not be in Kyiv’s interests, due to the economic consequences of the war in Europe.

“I know that the cost of food has gone up, the cost of fuel. Everybody is looking at this — I mean, too many countries are looking at this thing now and saying this is a European war that is unnecessary; it’s an economic problem that we don’t need.

“And so the pressure will grow to try to encourage, coerce maybe, the Ukrainians to a bad peace,” Johnson said, speaking from the Rwandan capital Kigali, where he is attending a Commonwealth summit.

Johnson said the consequences of Putin getting his way in Ukraine would be dangerous to international security and “a long-term economic disaster.”

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