Fighting intensifies for Ukraine’s last bastion in eastern Luhansk province

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Oleksandr Senkevych, mayor of the southern region of Mykolaiv, which borders the vital Black Sea port of Odesa, reported powerful explosions in the city.

“Stay in shelters!” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app as air raid sirens sounded.

The cause of the blasts was not immediately clear, although Russia later said it had hit army command posts in the area.

Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports.

Authorities said a missile slammed into an apartment block near Odesa on Friday, killing at least 21 people. A shopping mall was hit on Monday in the central city of Kremenchuk, leaving at least 19 dead.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced the strikes on Friday as “conscious, deliberately targeted Russian terror and not some sort of error or a coincidental missile strike.”

In his nightly television address on Saturday, he said it would be a “very difficult path” to victory but it was necessary for Ukrainians to maintain their resolve and inflict losses on the “aggressor … so that every Russian remembers that Ukraine cannot be broken”.

“In many areas from the front, there is a sense of easing up, but the war is not over,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is intensifying in different places and we mustn’t forget that. We must help the army, the volunteers, help those who are left on their own at this time.”

Kyiv says Moscow has intensified missile attacks on cities far from the main eastern battlefields and that it deliberately hit civilian sites. Ukrainian troops on the eastern front lines meanwhile describe intense artillery barrages that have pummelled residential areas.

Thousands of civilians have been killed and cities levelled since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb 24. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov repeated Russian denials that its forces targeted civilians.

The Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, inspected Russian troops involved in what Moscow calls its “special military operation,” Russia’s defence ministry said, although it was not clear if he was in Ukraine.

The inspection followed slow but steady gains by Russian forces with the help of relentless artillery in east Ukraine, a focus for Moscow after it narrowed its broader war goals of toppling the government following fierce Ukrainian resistance.

Russia is seeking to drive Ukrainian forces out of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces in the industrialised eastern Donbas region where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Kyiv since Russia’s first military intervention in Ukraine in 2014.

“Definitely they are trying to demoralise us. Maybe some people are affected by that, but for us it only brings more hatred and determination,” said a Ukrainian soldier returning from Lysychansk.

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