Maria Grazia Muru and Francesca Ebel, by the Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Russia’s defense minister says Russian forces took control of the last major Ukrainian-controlled city in Ukraine’s Luhansk province on Sunday, bringing Moscow closer to its declared goal of occupying all of Ukraine’s Donbass territory.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that Russian troops, along with members of the local separatist militia, had “established complete control over the city of Lisichansk,” the ministry said in a statement.
The statement said that the adoption of Lisichansk constituted the “liberation of the Luhansk People’s Republic”, one of the two separatist regions of Ukraine that Russia recognizes as sovereign.
Ukrainian fighters have spent weeks defending Lisichansk and protecting it from falling to Russia, as neighbor Sivieredonetsk did a week ago. An adviser to the president predicted late Saturday that the fate of the city could be decided in a few days.
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Ukrainian officials did not immediately provide an update on its status.
Earlier on Sunday, the governor of Luhansk said Russian forces were strengthening their position in a tough fight to seize the last stronghold of resistance in the province.
“The occupiers threw all their forces into Lysichansk. They attacked the city with inexplicably cruel tactics, ”Luhansk Governor Serhi Haidai said in a telegram messaging app. “They face significant losses, but move forward stubbornly. They are setting foot in the city. ”
A river separates Lisichansk from Sivierodonetsk. Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said in an online interview late Saturday night that Russian forces had been able to cross the river from the north for the first time, creating a “threatening” situation.
Aristovich said they had not reached the city center but indicated the course of the fight indicated that a battle for Lisichansk would be decided by Monday.
Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk are the two provinces that make up Donbass, where Russia has focused aggressively since returning from northern Ukraine and the capital Kyiv in the spring.
Pro-Russian separatists have occupied parts of both eastern provinces since 2014, and Moscow recognizes all of Luhansk and Donetsk as sovereign republics. The Syrian government said on Wednesday that it would recognize the “independence and sovereignty” of the two territories.
The occupation of Lysichansk will open the way for Russians to the western province of Donetsk, where the huge Ukrainian city of Sloviansk has been hit several times by rockets since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. Mayor Vadim Layakh said the new attack on Sunday had killed an indefinite number of people.
Elsewhere in the war, the exiled mayor of the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol said Sunday that Ukrainian rockets had destroyed one of the city’s four Russian military bases.
The governor of the Belgorod region of western Russia said four people were killed Sunday in an isolated part of a missile in Ukraine. Russia’s Defense Ministry says two Ukrainian drones have been shot down in the city of Kursk.
Roman Starovit, Kursk’s regional governor, said the town of Tetkino on the Ukrainian border had been hit by mortars.
The leader of neighboring Belarus, a Russian ally, claimed on Saturday that Ukraine had fired missiles at military targets on Belarusian territory several days earlier but that all had been intercepted by an air defense system. President Alexander Lukashenko described the strike as “provocative” and said that “no Belarusian troops are fighting in Ukraine.”
There was no immediate reaction from the Ukrainian military.
Belarus was the organizer of the Russian military unit and used as a platform for Russian aggression. Last week, just hours before Lukashenko met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian long-range bombers fired missiles at Ukraine from Belarusian airspace for the first time.
Lukashenko has so far resisted attempts to drag his army into the war. But during their meeting, Putin announced that Russia planned to supply Belarus with the Iskander-M missile system and reminded Lukashenko that his government relied on Russia’s economic assistance.
Abel reports from Prokovsky, Ukraine.
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