Ukrainian defenders fought desperately to withstand a major Russian offensive in the Donetsk region, a senior Ukrainian official said Wednesday, with the enemy laying down heavy artillery fire to pave the way for ground forces to advance.
After Russian forces on Sunday took control of Lysychansk, the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk, Ukraine's military braced for an assault on Donetsk, with the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk both in the Russian line of fire.
Donetsk and Luhansk comprise the Donbass, the industrialized eastern part of Ukraine that has seen the biggest battle in Europe for generations.
Russian shelling killed at least seven people in Ukraine over the past 24 hours and wounded 25 more, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday.
The country’s presidential office said Russian forces targeted cities and villages in southeast Ukraine, with most civilian casualties occurring in Donetsk province, where Russia stepped up its offensive in recent days.
Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said in a Telegram post that two people died in the city of Avdiivka, which is located in the center of the province, and the Donetsk cities of Sloviansk, Krasnohorivka and Kurakhove each reported one civilian killed.
There was heavy fighting at the edge of the Luhansk region, its governor, Serhiy Gaidai, told Ukrainian television, saying Russian regular army and reserve forces had been sent there in an apparent effort to cross the Donets River.
"We are holding back the enemy on the border of Luhansk region and Donetsk region," Gaidai wrote on Telegram on Wednesday.
"The occupiers are suffering significant losses, as they themselves admit," said Gaidai, citing testimonies from Russian POWs and residents who had spoken to Russian soldiers in the fallen cities of Severoronetsk and Lysychansk.
Reuters could not independently verify his comments.
Gaidai earlier said Russian forces were engaged in widespread shelling as they launched their assault on Donetsk.
Russia says it wants to wrest control of the entire Donbass from Ukraine on behalf of Moscow-backed separatists in two self-proclaimed people's republics.
On Tuesday, Russian forces struck a market and a residential area in Slovyansk, killing at least two people and injuring seven, local officials said.
A Reuters reporter at the scene saw yellow smoke billowing from an auto supplies shop, and flames engulfing rows of market stalls as firefighters tried to extinguish the blaze.
Donetsk regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said Slovyansk and nearby Kramatorsk had suffered heavy shelling overnight. "There is no safe place without shelling in the Donetsk region."
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, calling it a "special military operation" to demilitarize the country, root out nationalists and protect Russian speakers.
Kyiv and the West say Russia is waging an unprovoked, imperial-style land grab in its fellow ex-Soviet republic, and accuse the invaders of war crimes, which Moscow has denied.
Lysychansk, once a city of 100,000 people, lies in ruins. Buildings are scorched and holed by shells, cars up-ended and streets strewn with rubble, a testament to the ferocity of the battle it endured.
Tatiana Glushenko, a 45-year-old Lysychansk resident, told Reuters there were people still sheltering in basements and bomb shelters, including children and the elderly.
Glushenko said she didn't think she would be safe in other parts of Ukraine, so remained in Lysychansk with her family.
"All of Ukraine is being shelled: western Ukraine, central Ukraine, Dnipro, Kyiv, everywhere. So we decided not to risk our lives and stay here, at home at least," she added.
Glushenko now hopes peace will return to her ruined city, but for elderly residents Sergei and Evgenia the prospect of rebuilding from the ruins is daunting.
"We have to get out of here somehow," said Sergei, sitting in a dark shelter with a lone flashlight.
"The roof is broken. You have to fix it, but how and how do you pay for it?" said Evgenia, adding: "Winter is coming soon too."
Luhansk governor Gaidai said Russian forces were pillaging Lysychansk and its twin city Severodonetsk.
"They are hunting down pro-Ukraine residents. They are making deals with collaborators, they are identifying apartments where servicemen lived, breaking in and taking clothing," he said.
"Everything is being destroyed. Entire book collections in Ukrainian. This is deja vu – 1939 with Nazi Germany."
Russia says it does not target civilians.
Moscow ramped up its war rhetoric with Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin saying Ukraine had become a "terrorist state."
The remarks by the chair of the lower house of parliament suggested Russia may expand its stated war aims beyond the Donbass, having earlier abandoned offensives on the capital Kyiv and second largest city Kharkiv in the face of fierce resistance.
In another sign Russia is bracing for a long war, the Duma passed two bills in their first reading that would allow the government to oblige firms to supply the military and make staff work overtime to support the invasion.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a phone call he believed Ukraine's military could retake territory recently captured by Russia.
Johnson updated Zelenskyy on the latest deliveries of British military equipment, including 10 self-propelled artillery systems and loitering munitions, which would be arriving in the coming days and weeks, a spokesperson said.
Russia's invasion has killed thousands, displaced millions and flattened cities, particularly in Russian-speaking areas in the east and southeast of Ukraine. It has also raised global energy and food prices and raised fears of famine in poorer countries as Ukraine and Russia are both major grain producers.
Ukraine has asked Turkey to help probe three Russian-flagged ships as part of Kyiv’s efforts to investigate what it says is the theft of grain from Russian-occupied territory, according to official documents. Russia denies stealing Ukrainian grain.