By SAMYA KULLAB and YURAS KARMANAU
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Fierce battles raged outside Bakhmut as Russian forces pushed their advance on the eastern city with heavy shelling and infantry attacks, Ukraine’s presidential office said Monday, with at least five civilians killed and as many wounded in action across the war-torn country in the last 24 hours.
The presidential office said the situation in Bakhmut’s northern suburb of Paraskoviivka is “difficult” as Russian forces continued to pummel the area with “intense shelling and storming actions.” The nearby town of Vuhledar is also under heavy bombardment.
Ukrainian soldiers began training on Leopard 2 battle tanks, Germany’s Defense Ministry spokeswoman Nadine Krueger said in Berlin. Germany pledged to deliver 14 of the tanks to Ukraine by the end of March.
Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg again urged Ukraine’s Western allies to ramp up their military support. Asked Monday when he expects Russia’s so-called spring offensive to begin, Stoltenberg said that “the reality is that we have seen the start already.”
“For me, this just highlights the importance of timing. It’s urgent to provide Ukraine with more weapons,” he told reporters in Brussels. Stoltenberg said that NATO sees “no sign whatsoever that President Putin is preparing for peace” and that arming Ukraine more quickly could save lives by bringing a quicker end to the conflict.
Russian forces shelled a dozen cities and villages in the Donetsk region in the last 24 hours including in Druzhkivka where a missile hit a hospital and in Pokrovsk where shelling damaged seven houses and a kindergarten.
“The shelling intensifies, and the Russians accumulate more forces for an attack on peaceful cities,” Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said. “We’re seeing a very tough battle in which the Russians aren’t sparing neither themselves, nor us.”
In the neighboring Luhansk region, Russian troops pulled back after several days of intense fighting near the key city of Kreminna, although they’re not “running out of steam,” Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai told Ukrainian television.
In the partially occupied southern region of Kherson, artillery fire hit more than 20 cities and villages over the past 24 hours including the regional capital of the same name which was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November. Two men were killed in one of the villages when their car ran over a landmine.
In the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region, Russian shelling of the city of Nikopol killed one person and wounded two others. The shelling also damaged a residential building, a water treatment facility and a college.
Meanwhile, the U.K. Defense Ministry said Russian forces are bolstering defensive fortifications on the edge of the battlefront in southern Ukraine to protect their flank, despite their focus on the Donbas region.
“This is demonstrated by continued construction of defensive fortifications in Zaporizhzhia and Luhansk oblasts and deployment of personnel,” the Ministry said in a briefing Monday.
The U.S. embassy in Moscow issued another warning to U.S. citizens not to travel to Russia for fear of harassment or detention, urged them to leave immediately if they have to travel there.
The warning cited “the potential for harassment and the singling out of U.S. citizens for detention by Russian government security officials, the arbitrary enforcement of local law, limited flights into and out of Russia, the Embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, and the possibility of terrorism.”
The embassy also noted that Russian authorities may sweep up U.S. citizens who also hold Russian citizenship in a possible renewed mobilization of reservists. “Russia may refuse to acknowledge dual nationals’ U.S. citizenship, deny their access to U.S. consular assistance, subject them to mobilization, prevent their departure from Russia, and/or conscript them,” the warning said.
Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, the embassy has regularly issued advisories for U.S. citizens not to travel to Russia and leave if they already have.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Monday that a second round of mobilization is looming.
Although many people have fled the Donetsk province where the bulk of the fighting is concentrated, those who opted to stay depend on sporadic aid deliveries of food and water.
In the city of Sviatohirsk, in northern Donetsk, the few residents who remain rely on volunteers with the organization World Central Kitchen for food and supplies to cope with freezing temperatures. Sviatohirsk was liberated by Ukrainian forces in September.
On Sunday, the area was blanketed with snow, concealing the massive destruction from repeated bombardments and heavy fighting.
Standing by the ruins of the city council building, resident Valeriy Andrievskiy said the building used to be “beautiful.”
“God forbid our forces retreat and we stay (behind enemy lines). God forbid. I will not survive this one more time,” he said.
Walking near the ruins of her home, 80-year-old Tamara Yevdokimova said she had been “tortured” by Russian forces.
“I haven’t been able to hear for five months … They (Russians) have knocked my teeth out. What can I do?” she said. In her yard were the burned out remnants of a Russian tank.
People who left the front lines in search of safety continue are still struggling to adapt to a new life elsewhere. In Kyiv, dozens of people from Donbas, Kherson and Kharkiv regions are being helped by Center of Hope and Recovery, an organization that provides temporary homes and meals.
“These are people who have left in the past what they have earned for years, and this is a very traumatic experience,” said head of the center Anna Harkun. They receive psychological and medical help, while volunteers help them find work and permanent lodging, she added.
Russian rockets destroyed the home of 80-year-old Anatoly Zakharenko in village Terny in Donetsk. His wife, daughter, and disabled granddaughter were all evacuated and are being helped in the city.
Missing his hometown, he wrote a poem to ease the pain of displacement. “I will return to you, believe me,” he said, reading it aloud.
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