Russia-backed separatists claimed they captured a railway hub city in eastern Ukraine as Moscow’s forces strived to gain more ground Friday by pounding another Ukrainian-held area where authorities say 1,500 people have died since the start of the war.
With Russia’s offensive in Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region showing incremental progress, Ukrainian officials characterized the battle there in grave terms and renewed their appeals for more sophisticated Western-supplied weaponry.
Ukraine’s foreign minister pleaded for “weapons, weapons and weapons again,” warning that without a new injection of foreign arms, Ukrainian forces would not be able to stop Russia’s advance on the east.
The fighting Friday focused on two key cities: Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. They are the last areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk, one of two provinces that make up the Donbas and where Moscow-backed separatists have controlled some territory for eight years.
“There are battles on the outskirts of the city. Massive artillery shelling does not stop, day and night,” Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk told The Associated Press. “The city is being systematically destroyed - 90% of the buildings in the city are damaged.”
An assault was underway in the city’s northeastern quarter, where Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups tried to capture the Mir Hotel and the area around it Friday, Stryuk said.
At least 1,500 people have died in Sievierodonetsk because of the war since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, he said.
The figure includes people killed by shelling or in fires caused by Russian missile strikes, as well as those who died from shrapnel wounds, untreated diseases, a lack of medicine or while trapped under rubble, according to the mayor.
“For a month and a half, because of the shelling, it has not been possible to provide people with full-fledged medical care,” Struuk said.
About 12,000 to 13,000 people remain in the city – down from a pre-war population of about 100,000, he said.
Russian shelling killed four people in Sievierodonetsk over the past 24 hours, regional governor Serhiy Haidai wrote in a Telegram post Friday.
In Donetsk, the Donbas region’s other province, the Russia-backed rebels said Friday they took control of Lyman, a large railway hub north of two more key cities that remain under Ukrainian control.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich acknowledged that “we lost Lyman” Thursday night. However, a Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesperson reported Friday that its soldiers countered Russian attempts to push them completely out of the city.
Near the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine, 10 people were killed and about 35 wounded in Russian missile strikes against a National Guard base, according to the head of the Dnipro territorial defense forces.
As Ukraine’s hopes of stopping the Russian advance faded, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pleaded with Western nations to provide his country with more weapons.
“We need heavy weapons. The only position where Russia is better than us, it’s the amount of heavy weapons they have. Without artillery, without multiple launch rocket systems we won’t be able to push them back,” Kuleba said in a video posted Thursday night on Twitter.
In his nightly address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had some harsh words for the European Union, which has not agreed on a sixth round of sanctions that includes an embargo on Russian oil.
Zelenskyy said Russia’s offensive in the Donbas could leave its communities in ashes and uninhabitable. He accused Moscow of pursuing “an obvious policy of genocide” through mass deportations and killings of civilians.
On Thursday, Russian shelling of Kharkiv, a northeastern city that has been under assault while Ukrainian forces keep the invading troops out, killed nine people, including a father and his 5-month-old baby, the president said.
Associated Press reporters saw the bodies of at least two dead men and four wounded at a central subway station, where the victims were taken as shelling continued outside.
Zelenskyy also spoke bluntly about what’s at stake in the battle for eastern Ukraine.
“Pressure on Russia is literally a matter of saving lives,” he said. “And every day of delay, weakness, various disputes or proposals to ‘appease’ the aggressor at the expense of the victim is new killed Ukrainians. And new threats to everyone on our continent.”
Germany’s development minister traveled to Ukraine on Friday to pledge further civilian support and to discuss the country’s rebuilding. Austria’s chancellor, meanwhile, was set to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin about possible prisoner exchanges.
Moscow pressed the West on Thursday to lift sanctions already imposed over the war, seeking to shift the blame for a growing global food crisis that has been worsened by Kyiv’s inability to ship millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products while under attack.