By ANDREW MELDRUM and JOANNA KOZLOWSKA Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine on Saturday ordered all residents of the city of Kherson to leave “immediately” ahead of an expected advance by Ukrainian troops in a counteroffensive to recapture one of the first urban areas that Russia took over after invading the country.
In a post on the Telegram messaging service, the pro-Kremlin regional administration strongly urged civilians to use boat crossings over a major river to push deeper into Russian-controlled territory, citing a tense situation on the front lines and the threat of bombings and supposed plans. for “terrorist attacks” from Kyiv.
Kherson has been in Russian hands since the first days of the nearly 8-month war in Ukraine. The city is the capital of a region of the same name, one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and placed under Russian martial law on Thursday.
On Friday, Ukrainian forces bombarded Russian positions across the province, targeting pro-Kremlin forces’ resupply routes across the Dnieper River and preparing for a last-ditch attempt to retake the city. Ukraine has retaken some villages in the north of the region since launching its counteroffensive in late August.
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Russian-installed officials were reportedly desperately trying to turn the city of Kherson, a prime target for both sides due to its key industries and ports, into a fortress as they tried to relocate tens of thousands of residents.
The Kremlin sent up to 2,000 conscripts to the surrounding region to replenish losses and strengthen front-line units, according to the general staff of the Ukrainian army.
The wide Dnieper River figures as a major factor in the fighting, making it difficult for Russia to supply its troops defending the city of Kherson and nearby areas on the west bank after relentless Ukrainian attacks disabled major crossings.
Taking control of Kherson has allowed Russia to resume fresh water supplies from the Dnieper to Crimea, which Ukraine cut off after Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. A large hydroelectric power plant upstream from the city of Kherson is a key source of energy for the southern region. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of trying to blow it up to flood the mostly flat region.
Kremlin-backed authorities in Kherson earlier announced plans to evacuate all Russian-appointed officials and up to 60,000 civilians across the river, in what local leader Vladimir Saldo said would be a “gradual and organized move.”
Another Russian-installed official estimated on Saturday that some 25,000 people from across the region crossed the Dnieper. In a Telegram post, Kirill Stremousov claimed that civilians were voluntarily relocating.
“People are actively moving because today the priority is life. We are not dragging anyone anywhere,” she said, adding that some residents may be waiting for the Ukrainian military to retake the city.
Ukrainian and Western officials have raised concerns about possible forced transfers of residents to Russia or Russian-occupied territory.
Ukrainian officials urged Kherson residents to resist attempts to relocate them, with a local official alleging that Moscow wanted to take the civilians hostage and use them as human shields.
Elsewhere in the invaded country, hundreds of thousands of people in central and western Ukraine woke up Saturday to power outages and periodic bursts of gunfire. In its latest war tactic, Russia has stepped up attacks on power plants, water supply systems and other key infrastructure across the country.
Ukraine’s air force said in a statement on Saturday that Russia had launched “a massive missile strike” against “critical infrastructure”, adding that it had shot down 18 of 33 air- and sea-launched cruise missiles.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later said that Russia launched 36 missiles, most of which were shot down.
“Such treacherous strikes on critical facilities are characteristic tactics of terrorists,” Zelenskyy said. “The world can and must stop this terror.”
Air-raid sirens blared across Ukraine twice in the early afternoon, sending residents into shelters as Ukrainian air defense tried to shoot down incoming explosive drones and missiles.
“Several rockets” that were aimed at the Ukrainian capital were shot down on Saturday morning, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging service.
The president’s office said in its morning update that five suicide drones were shot down in the central Cherkasy region, southeast of Kyiv. Similar reports came from the governors of six western and central provinces, as well as the southern region of Odessa on the Black Sea.
Ukraine’s top diplomat said the day’s attacks showed that Ukraine needed new air defense systems strengthened by the West “without a minute’s delay.”
“Air defense saves lives,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Telegram that nearly 1.4 million households were without power as a result of the strikes. He said some 672,000 homes in the western Khmelnytskyi region were affected and another 242,000 in the Cherkassy region were outages.
Most of the western city of Khmelnytskyi, which straddles the Bug River and had a population of 275,000 before the war, was left without power shortly after local media reported several loud explosions.
In a social media post on Saturday, the city council urged local residents to store water “in case it too runs out within an hour.”
The mayor of Lutsk, a city of 215,000 in Ukraine’s far west, made a similar appeal, saying electricity in the city was partially cut off after Russian missiles slammed into local power facilities and damaged a plant. power beyond repair.
The central city of Uman, a key pilgrimage center for Hasidic Jews with some 100,000 residents before the war, was also plunged into darkness after a rocket hit a nearby power plant.
Ukraine’s state power company, Ukrenergo, responded to the strikes by announcing that rolling blackouts would be imposed in Kyiv and 10 Ukrainian regions to stabilize the situation.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, the company accused Russia of attacking “energy facilities within the main networks of the western regions of Ukraine.” He claimed that the scale of destruction was comparable to the fallout earlier this month of Moscow’s first coordinated attack on Ukraine’s power grid.
Both Ukrenergo and Kyiv officials have urged Ukrainians to conserve energy. Earlier this week, Zelenskyy urged consumers to reduce energy use between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. and avoid using power-hungry appliances such as electric heaters.
Zelenskyy said earlier in the week that 30% of Ukraine’s power plants have been destroyed since Russia launched the first wave of attacks targeting infrastructure on October 10.
In another development, Russian officials said two people were killed and 12 others wounded in Ukrainian shelling of the town of Shebekino in the Belgorod region near the border.
Kozlowska reported from London.
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