The Ukrainian military says it has killed dozens of Russian soldiers in fighting in the south, including the Kherson region that is the focus of Kyiv’s counteroffensive in that part of the country and a key link in Moscow’s supply lines.
Rail traffic to Kherson over the Dnieper River had been cut, the military’s southern command said on Saturday, potentially further isolating Russian forces west of the river from supplies in occupied Crimea and the east.
Defence and intelligence officials from the UK, which has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies in the West since Moscow’s February 24 invasion, portrayed Russian forces as struggling to maintain momentum.
Ukraine has used Western-supplied long-range missile systems to badly damage three bridges across the Dnieper in recent weeks, cutting off Kherson city and – in the assessment of British defence officials – leaving Russia’s 49th Army stationed on the west bank of the river highly vulnerable.
The Ukrainian military’s southern command said more than 100 Russian soldiers had been killed and seven tanks had been destroyed in fighting in the south on Friday.
The first deputy head of the Kherson regional council, Yuri Sobolevsky, told residents to stay away from Russian ammunition dumps.
“The Ukrainian army is pouring it on against the Russians and this is only the beginning,” Sobolevsky wrote on the Telegram app.
The pro-Ukrainian governor of Kherson region, Dmytro Butriy, said Berislav district was particularly hard hit. Berislav is across the river northwest of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant.
“In some villages, not a single home has been left intact, all infrastructure has been destroyed; people are living in cellars,” Butriy wrote on Telegram.
The reports could not be independently verified.
Officials from the Russian-appointed administration running the Kherson region earlier this week rejected Western and Ukrainian assessments of the situation.
In an intelligence update on Saturday, the United Kingdom’s defence ministry said Russia had likely established two pontoon bridges and a ferry system to compensate for bridges damaged in Ukrainian attacks.
Russian-installed authorities in occupied territories in southern Ukraine were possibly preparing to hold referendums on joining Russia later this year, and were “likely coercing the population into disclosing personal details in order to compose voting registers”, it added.
On Friday, the ministry described the Russian government as “growing desperate”, having lost tens of thousands of soldiers in the war. The chief of the UK’s MI6 foreign intelligence agency, Richard Moore, added on Twitter that Russia is “running out of steam”.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has decided on a mandatory evacuation of people in the region around the eastern city of Donetsk, the scene of fierce fighting with Russia, Zelenskyy said on Saturday.
In a late-night address, Zelenskyy also said the hundreds of thousands of people still in combat zones in the larger Donbas region needed to leave.
“There’s already a governmental decision about obligatory evacuation from Donetsk region,” he said. “Please, follow evacuation. At this phase of the war, terror is a main weapon of Russia.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia traded accusations about a missile attack or explosion that appeared to have killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war in eastern Donetsk province. The incident took place early on Friday in the front-line town of Olenivka held by Moscow-backed separatists.
Russia’s defence ministry on Saturday published a list of Ukrainian prisoners of war who it said were killed and wounded in what it said was a missile attack by the Ukrainian military. It said the attack by US-made HIMARS rockets had killed 50 prisoners and injured another 73.
Ukraine’s armed forces denied responsibility, saying Russian artillery had targeted the prison to hide the mistreatment of those held there. Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday that Russia had committed a war crime and called for international condemnation.
Ukrainian human rights official Dmytro Lubinetsk said on national television he had asked the Red Cross and the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission to go to Olenivka.
The ICRC has made a request but has not yet obtained authorisation from the Russians, he said.
Late on Saturday, the Russian defence ministry said Moscow has invited experts from the United Nations and the ICRC to probe the deaths.
In a statement, the ministry said it was acting “in the interests of conducting an objective investigation”.
Earlier, Russian defence ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov said on Saturday that “all political, criminal and moral responsibility for the bloody massacre against Ukrainians falls on [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy, his criminal regime and Washington who supports them.”
A charity linked to Ukraine’s Azov regiment said on Telegram it was not immediately able to confirm or deny the authenticity of the Russian list of people killed and wounded.
The differing versions of events could not be verified, but some of the deaths were confirmed by the Reuters news agency journalists who visited the prison.
Ukraine has accused Russia of atrocities and brutality against civilians since its invasion and said it has identified more than 10,000 possible war crimes. Russia has denied targeting civilians and allegations of war crimes.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian authorities said Russian bombardments targeting the south and east of the country had left one dead in southern Mykolaiv and one dead in eastern Bakhmut.
The death toll from an attack on a Mykolaiv bus stop on Friday climbed to seven after two men died in hospital, a local official said.
In the eastern city of Kharkiv, three Russian S-300 missiles struck a school, Mayor Igor Terekhov said on Telegram, adding that the main building was destroyed.