- Severodonetsk city center to fight for eastern Ukraine
- Hundreds are trapped at the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk
- NATO defense ministers are scheduled to discuss military aid to Ukraine
Kyiv (Reuters) – Ukraine showed no sign of heeding Russia’s ultimatum to hand over the eastern city of Severodonetsk on Wednesday as NATO defense ministers met in Brussels to discuss sending more heavy weapons to replenish Kyiv’s dwindling stockpile.
Russia had told Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical plant in the devastated city to stop “absurd resistance and lay down arms” as of Wednesday morning, pressuring their advantage in the battle for control of eastern Ukraine.
Russia-backed separatists said plans announced by Moscow to open a humanitarian corridor for civilians holed up in the factory had been disrupted, and they blamed the bombing of Ukraine.
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Ukraine says more than 500 civilians and soldiers are trapped inside an Azot chemical plant, where its forces have withstood weeks of Russian bombardment and assaults that have reduced much of Severodonetsk to rubble.
After the early morning deadline passed, the mayor of Severodonetsk, Oleksandr Stryuk, said that Russian forces were trying to storm the city from several directions, but that Ukrainian forces continued to defend it and were not completely isolated.
“We are trying to push the enemy towards the city center,” he said on television, without indicating the warning. “This is an ongoing situation with partial successes and tactical retreats.”
“The escape routes are dangerous, but there are some,” he said.
His comments echo those of Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the Luhansk region that includes the Severodonetsk region, which were posted online before the 8 a.m. Moscow time (0500 GMT) deadline.
He said the army was defending and keeping Severodonetsk from Lysechhansk, the Ukraine-controlled twin city on the opposite bank of the Seversky Donets River.
However, the Russians are close, the population is suffering, and the houses are being destroyed.”
Luhansk is one of two eastern provinces claimed by Moscow on behalf of separatist proxies. Together they make up the Donbass region, an industrial region of Ukraine on which Russia focused its attack after it failed to capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in March.
British intelligence said fighters at the chemical plant could survive underground and Russian forces would likely remain focused on them, preventing them from attacking elsewhere.
Reuters was not immediately able to verify the battlefield accounts.
The bombing of Azot reflects the earlier siege of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, where hundreds of fighters and civilians took shelter from Russian bombardment. Those inside surrendered in mid-May and were taken to Russian custody.
The city’s mayor, Stryuk, said those holed up in Azot were surviving from well water, generators and brought in food supplies.
“The humanitarian situation is critical,” he said.
The Russian attack on Severodonetsk – a city that had a population of barely more than 100,000 people before the war – is the current focal point of the so-called Battle of Donbass.
Kyiv said between 100 and 200 of its soldiers are being killed every day, while hundreds of others are wounded in the bloodiest battle since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24.
Ukraine said on Tuesday it was still trying to evacuate civilians after Russian forces destroyed the last bridge linking Severodonetsk and Lysechhansk, which is located on high ground on the western bank of the Seversky Donets River.
“We have to be strong… the more losses the enemy incurs, the less will it be able to continue its aggression,” Zelensky said in a speech late Tuesday.
Brussels, we are waiting
Western countries have promised weapons that meet NATO standards – including advanced US missiles. But their deployment takes time, and Ukraine will require steady Western support to transition to new supplies and weapons systems as its Soviet-era arms and ammunition stocks dwindle.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is leading the meeting in Brussels on Wednesday on the sidelines of a meeting of NATO defense ministers. This is the third time that a group of about 50 countries has met to discuss and coordinate aid to Ukraine.
In May, the US Senate passed a bill to provide $40 billion in additional aid to Ukraine, including $15 billion for defensive measures, and the promise of advanced long-range missile systems, drones, and artillery.
But Zelensky said Ukraine did not have enough anti-missile systems, adding that “there can be no justification for delays.”
His adviser, Mikhailo Podolyak, said the defenders of Severodonetsk wanted to know when the weapons would arrive. “Brussels…we are waiting for a decision,” he wrote on Twitter.
‘Unable to leave’
Russia has not provided regular figures on its losses, but Western countries say they have been huge as President Vladimir Putin seeks to force Kyiv to relinquish full control of Donbass and a swathe of southern Ukraine. Putin describes the war as a special military operation against Ukrainian nationalists.
At Sievierodonetsk, the momentum shifted as Russia concentrated its overwhelming artillery firepower on urban areas and then sent in forces vulnerable to counterattacks.
Elsewhere in Donbass, Ukraine says Russia plans to attack Slovenia from the north and along a front near Bakhmut in the south.
In the Donetsk province, infrastructure including homes, schools, hospitals and markets have been attacked over the past week, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.
“This has made life almost unbearable for people who also face severe water shortages, sometimes not being able to leave their homes for days on end,” Dujarric said.
In the south, the Ukrainian military said it launched three air strikes on troop buildups, fuel depots and military equipment in the Kherson region.
The conflict drove up grain prices, and Western sanctions against Russia drove up oil prices. Petersburg International Economic Forum was scheduled to open on Wednesday without the usual high-level Western participation, but Putin’s speech on Friday will be closely watched. Read more
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Reporting by Reuters offices. Written by Rami Ayoub, Stephen Coates and Philippa Fletcher. Editing by Grant McCall, Simon Cameron Moore and Frank Jack Daniel
Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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