Ukrainian army leaves devastated city to avoid encirclement

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – After weeks of fierce fighting, Ukrainian forces will withdraw from a besieged city in the country’s east to avoid a siege, a regional governor said Friday.

The city of Severodonetsk, the administrative center of the Luhansk region, faced relentless Russian bombardment. Ukrainian forces battled the Russians in house-to-house battles before retreating to a massive chemical factory on the edge of the city, where they holed up in its sprawling underground structures.

In recent days, Russian forces have made gains around Sievierodonetsk and the neighboring city of Lysychansk, on a steep bank across the river, in an attempt to encircle the Ukrainian forces.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Hayday said Ukrainian forces were given an order to leave Severodonetsk to prevent this.

“We have to withdraw our men,” he said. “It makes no sense to stay in the destroyed sites, because the number of casualties in poorly fortified areas will increase every day.”

Haiday said Ukrainian forces had “received orders to retreat to new positions and continue the fight there” but gave no further details.

The Russians are also advancing towards Lysichansk from Zolote and Toshkivka, he said, adding that Russian reconnaissance units carried out raids on the outskirts of the city but its defenders were pushed out.

The governor added that a bridge on a highway leading to Lysichansk was badly damaged in a Russian air strike and rendered unfit for trucks. The claim cannot be independently verified.

On Friday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that four Ukrainian battalions and a unit of “foreign mercenaries” totaling about 2,000 soldiers were “completely confined” near Hersk and Zolote, south of Lysekhansk.

After a failed attempt to seize Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, in the early stage of the invasion that began on February 24, Russian forces shifted their focus to the Donbass region, where Ukrainian forces have been battling Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

The Russian army controls about 95% of Luhansk Province and about half of the neighboring Donetsk Province, the two regions that make up the Donbass.

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After repeated requests from its Western allies for heavy weapons to counter Russia’s superiority in firepower, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said the response has arrived in the form of US medium-range missile launchers.

A US defense official confirmed Wednesday that all four of the promised High Mobility Artillery Missile Systems, or HIMARS, were in the hands of Ukrainian forces, but said it was not clear if they had been used yet.

The US agreed to provide the precision guidance systems at the end of May, and once in the area, Ukrainian forces required about three weeks of training to operate them. The missiles can travel about 45 miles (70 kilometers).

US officials announced Thursday that the United States will send an additional $450 million in military aid to Ukraine, including four medium-range missile systems, ammunition and other supplies.

In other developments:

An official of the pro-Moscow administration in the southern city of Kherson captured by Russian forces early in the invasion was killed in an explosion on Friday.

The pro-Russian regional administration in Kherson said Dmitry Savlyushenko died when his car exploded in what it called a “terrorist attack”.

No one immediately claimed responsibility.