KRAMATORSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia redoubled its push for Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region Wednesday, with the Ukrainian military claiming to have repelled some advances as shelling killed at least eight civilians in the area over the past 24 hours and wounded 25. Pro-Russia separatists said Ukrainian attacks killed four civilians on their side of the front.
The Ukrainian armed forces General Staff said troops stopped enemy units from advancing towards Sloviansk, a city in Donetsk, one of two provinces in the Donbas whose capture is among Moscow’s main goals. It also claimed to have repelled Russian attacks on a town and village north of Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, just miles (kilometers) from the Russian border.
The Ukrainian presidential office said most civilian casualties were in Donetsk province, where Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said two people died in the city of Avdiivka; the cities of Sloviansk, Krasnohorivka and Kurakhove each reported one civilian killed.
“Every crime will be punished,” he wrote on social media.
Kyrylenko urged the province’s more than 350,000 remaining residents to flee late Tuesday, saying that evacuating Donetsk was necessary to save lives and allow the Ukrainian army to put up a better defense against the Russian advance.
Donetsk is part of the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking industrial area where Ukraine’s most experienced soldiers are concentrated. Pro-Russian separatists have fought Ukrainian forces and controlled much of the Donbas for eight years.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two self-proclaimed separatist republics. Putin on Monday declared the complete seizure of Luhansk, after Ukrainian troops withdrew from the last city under their control in the province.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai denied Wednesday that the Russians had completely captured the province. Heavy fighting continued in villages around Lysychansk, the city Ukrainian soldiers withdrew from and which Russian troops took Sunday, he said.
“The Russians have paid a high price, but the Luhansk region is not fully captured by the Russian army,” Haidai said. “Some settlements have been overrun by each side several times.”
He accused Russian forces of scorched earth tactics, “burning down and destroying everything on their way.”
The Russian military pounded Luhansk for weeks from the air and ground, causing mass destruction and large civilian casualties. When Russian troops enter villages and cities, they are largely empty. From pre-war populations, each of around 100,000, only up to 15,000 residents remain in Lysychansk and some 8,000 in the nearby city of Sievierodonetsk, which Russian and separatist fighters seized last month, Haidai said.
Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskky, in his nightly video address Wednesday, said that of all the battles in his country, “the most brutal confrontation” is raging in the Donbas.
Separatist authorities in Donetsk province said Wednesday that four civilians were killed and 14 wounded in Ukrainian shelling over the past 24 hours. News reports said shelling hit an ammunition depot on Tuesday, triggering massive explosions.
North of Donetsk, Russian forces hit Kharkiv with missile strikes overnight. Kharkiv regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said on Telegram Wednesday that one person was killed and three, including a toddler, were injured. First responders crunched through the debris of a Kharkiv university, where Zelenskyy said the main building, lecture halls, museum and library were destroyed.
“When it comes to the definition of barbarism, this strike fits the bill the most,” the Ukrainian president said in his nightly address. “Only an enemy of civilization and humanity can do such things — strike missiles at a university, a pedagogical university.”
The attacks indicated that residents of the city are unlikely to enjoy calm as the war grinds into its fifth month.
Providing its account of the fighting in Kharkiv, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces killed up to 100 Ukrainian troops and destroyed four armored vehicles. The ministry also said its forces struck a Ukrainian air-defense radar and camp housing foreign fighters in southern Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region.
The ministry’s chief spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, claimed air-launched high precision missiles destroyed two HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems the U.S. had sent to Ukraine. The Ukrainian military denied Moscow’s claims.