KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine on Saturday ordered all residents of the city of Kherson to leave “immediately” ahead of an expected advance by Ukrainian troops. waging a counteroffensive to recapture one of the first urban areas Russia took after invading the country.
In a post on the Telegram messaging service, the pro-Kremlin regional administration called on civilians to use boat crossings over a major river to push deeper into Russian-controlled territory, citing a tense situation on the front lines and the threat of bombings and alleged “terrorist attacks” by Kyiv.
Kherson has been in Russian hands since the first days of the nearly 8-month war in Ukraine. The city is the capital of a region of the same name, one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and placed under Russian martial law on Thursday.
On Friday, Ukrainian forces shelled Russian positions throughout the province, targeting pro-Kremlin forces’ resupply routes across the Dnieper River and inching closer to a full assault on the city of Kherson. Ukraine has retaken some villages in the north of the region since launching its counteroffensive in late August.
Russian-installed officials were reportedly desperately trying to turn the city of Kherson, a prime target for both sides due to its key industries and ports, into a fortress as they tried to relocate tens of thousands of residents.
The Kremlin sent up to 2,000 conscripts to the surrounding region to replenish losses and strengthen front-line units, according to the general staff of the Ukrainian army.
The Dnieper River figures prominently in the regional battle because it serves multiple critical functions. Provides crossings for supplies, troops, and civilians; drinking water for southern Ukraine and the annexed Crimean peninsula; and power generation from a hydroelectric plant.
Much of the area, including the power plant and a canal that feeds water to Crimea, is under Russian control.
Kremlin-backed authorities in Kherson earlier announced plans to evacuate all Russian-appointed officials and up to 60,000 civilians across the river, in what local leader Volodymyr Saldo said would be a “gradual and organized move.”
Another Russian-installed official estimated on Saturday that some 25,000 people from across the region crossed the Dnieper. In a Telegram post, Kirill Stremousov claimed that civilians were voluntarily relocating.
“People are actively moving because today the priority is life. We don’t drag anyone anywhere,” she said.
Ukrainian and Western officials have raised concerns about possible forced transfers of residents to Russia or Russian-occupied territory.
Ukrainian officials have urged Kherson residents to resist attempts to relocate them, with a local official alleging that Moscow wanted to take the civilians hostage and use them as human shields.
Elsewhere in the invaded country, hundreds of thousands of people in central and western Ukraine woke up Saturday to power outages and periodic bursts of gunfire. In its latest war tactic, Russia has stepped up attacks on power plants, water supply systems and other key infrastructure across the country.
Ukraine’s air force said in a statement on Saturday that Russia had launched “a massive missile attack” targeting “critical infrastructure,” adding that it had shot down 18 of 33 air- and sea-launched cruise missiles.
In a Telegram post published later on Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy referenced 36 missiles, “most of which were shot down.” The reason for the discrepancy in the numbers was not immediately clear.
Air-raid sirens blared across Ukraine twice in the early afternoon, sending residents into shelters as Ukrainian air defense tried to shoot down incoming explosive drones and missiles.
“Several rockets” that were aimed at the Ukrainian capital were shot down on Saturday morning, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging service.
The president’s office said in its morning update that five suicide drones were shot down in the central Cherkasy region, southeast of Kyiv.
Governors of six western and central provinces, as well as the Black Sea region south of Odessa, gave similar reports.
Ukraine’s top diplomat said the day’s attacks showed that Ukraine needed new air defense systems strengthened by the West “without a minute’s delay.”
“Air defense saves lives,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Telegram that nearly 1.4 million households were without power as a result of the strikes. He said some 672,000 homes in the western Khmelnytskyi region were affected and another 242,000 in the Cherkassy region were outages.
Most of the western city of Khmelnytskyi, which straddles the Bug River and had a population of 275,000 before the war, was left without power shortly after local media reported several loud explosions.
In a social media post on Saturday, the city council urged local residents to store water “in case it too runs out within an hour.”
The mayor of Lutsk, a city of 215,000 in the far west of Ukraine, made a similar appeal on Saturday. Power in Lutsk was partially cut off after Russian missiles crashed into local power facilities, Mayor Ihor Polishchuk said.
He later added that a civilian suffered burns when a shock wave from the attack hit his home and that a power plant was damaged beyond repair.
The central city of Uman, a key pilgrimage center for Hasidic Jews with some 100,000 residents before the war, was also plunged into darkness after a rocket hit a nearby power station, regional authorities said on Telegram.
Ukraine’s state power company, Ukrenergo, responded to the strikes by announcing that rolling blackouts would be imposed in Kyiv and 10 Ukrainian regions to stabilize the situation.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, the company accused Russia of attacking “energy facilities within the main networks of the western regions of Ukraine.” He claimed the scale of destruction was comparable to the fallout earlier this month from Moscow’s first coordinated attack on Ukraine’s power grid.
Both Ukrenergo and Kyiv officials have urged Ukrainians to conserve energy. Earlier this week, Zelenskyy urged consumers to reduce energy use between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. and avoid using energy-intensive appliances such as electric heaters.
Zelenskyy said earlier in the week that 30% of Ukraine’s power plants have been destroyed since Russia launched the first wave of attacks targeting infrastructure on October 10.
In another development, Russian authorities said a bombing attack on a border town a few miles north of the Ukrainian border killed two people and wounded 12.
Andrey Ikonnikov, health minister for Russia’s southern Belgorod region, said a 14-year-old boy and an older man died at the scene after shells hit civilian infrastructure in Shebekino, which is home to some 44,500 people.
Earlier posts on social media by regional governor Vladislav Gladkov blamed the attack on Ukraine. Russia previously accused Ukrainian forces of numerous attacks on civilians in the Belgorod and Kursk border regions. Kyiv has not formally responded to these accusations.
Kozlowska reported from London.
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