Russia destroys bridge near besieged Severodonetsk in Ukraine, cutting off key escape route

Russian forces blew up a bridge connecting the besieged Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk to another town across the river, cutting off a possible escape route for civilians, local officials said on Sunday.

Severodonetsk has become the epicenter of the battle for control of the eastern region of Donbass in Ukraine. Parts of the city have been pulverized in some of the bloodiest fighting since the Kremlin launched its invasion on February 24.

Ukrainian and Russian forces were still engaged in street-to-street fighting on Sunday, Luhansk provincial governor Serhii Haidai said.

Russian forces have taken most of the town, but Ukrainian troops still control an industrial area and a chemical plant where hundreds of civilians are sheltering.

But the Russians destroyed a bridge over the Siverskyi Donets River linking Severodonetsk to its twin city of Lysychansk, Haidai said.

Destroyed vehicles are seen near the Siverskyi Donets River in this handout image uploaded May 12. (Ukrainian Airborne Forces Command/Reuters)

This leaves only one of the three bridges still standing and reduces the number of routes that could be used to evacuate civilians or for Ukrainian troops to withdraw to positions on the west side of the river.

In Lysychansk itself, Russian shelling killed a woman and destroyed four houses and a shopping mall, Haidai said.

Severodonetsk’s head of administration said just over a third of the city remained under the control of Ukrainian forces and about two-thirds was in Russian hands.

“Our [forces] firmly hold the defensive line,” Oleksandr Stryuk told national television.

After being forced to scale back its initial campaign goals following its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has focused on expanding control in the Donbass, where pro-Russian separatists have held a swath of territory since 2014.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands in front of a burning vehicle during battles with Russian troops in Lysychansk, in Ukraine’s Donbass region, on Saturday. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Severodonetsk is the last city in the Donbass province of Luhansk still held by Ukraine, and its loss would be a significant strategic blow. Victory for the Russians would bring them a big step closer to one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated goals in what he calls a “special military operation”.

Elsewhere, Russian cruise missiles destroyed a major depot containing US and European weapons in the Ternopil region of western Ukraine, Russian news agency Interfax reported.

The governor of Ternopil said rockets fired from the Black Sea at the town of Chortkiv partly destroyed a military installation and injured 22 people. A local official said no weapons were stored there.

Reuters could not independently confirm the various accounts.

South and southwest of Severodonetsk, Russian forces were firing mortars and artillery around a number of settlements, according to the Ukrainian General Staff. But he said Ukrainian forces had repelled Russian attempts to advance towards some communities.

Reuters could not independently verify reports from the battlefield.

Western weapons, support

Moscow has repeatedly criticized the United States and other countries for supplying arms to Ukraine. Putin said earlier this month that Russia would hit new targets if the West supplied longer-range missiles to Ukraine for use in high-precision mobile rocket systems.

Ukrainian leaders have renewed their calls for Western countries in recent days to speed up deliveries of heavy weapons as Russian artillery pound the east of the country.

Ukrainian forces have proven more resilient than expected, but the American Institute for the Study of War says that by using the last of their stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition, they will need constant Western support.

Putin says Russia’s actions are aimed at disarming and “denazifying” Ukraine. Kyiv and its allies call it an unprovoked war of aggression to capture territory.

Pardon ruled out for captured Britons

Also on Sunday, the head of the breakaway, Russian-backed Donetsk region in Donbass said there was no reason to pardon two British nationals who were sentenced to death last week after being captured as they fought for Ukraine.

A court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic on Thursday found Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner – along with Moroccan Brahim Saadoun – guilty of “mercenary activities” aimed at overthrowing the republic.

Britain claims that Aslin and Pinner were regular soldiers and should be exempt under the Geneva Conventions from prosecution for participation in hostilities. The separatists say they have committed serious crimes and have a month to appeal.

“I see no reason, no precondition for me to issue such a pardon decision,” said Denis Pushilin, quoted by Russian news agencies.

Aslin’s family said he and Pinner “are not and have never been mercenaries”.

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Post expires at 10:34pm on Thursday June 23rd, 2022