Russia ‘captures villages’ in north-east Ukraine as more than 1,700 people flee

Russian forces have captured five villages as part of a renewed ground assault in Ukraine’s north east, the country’s Defence Ministry said.

Ukrainian journalists reported on Friday that Russian troops had taken the villages of Borysivka, Ohirtseve, Pylna and Strilecha, all of which are in a militarily contested “grey zone” on the border of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region and Russia.

Russian officials said they had also captured another village, Pletenivka, in a renewed attack on the region that Ukrainian authorities said forced more than 1,700 civilians to flee.

Artillery, mortar and aerial bombardments hit more than 30 towns and villages, killing at least three people and injuring five others, said Kharkiv governor Oleh Syniehubov.

Police evacuate elderly people after the Russian attack (Ukrainian Police/AP)

Ukraine rushed reinforcements to the Kharkiv region on Friday to hold off a Russian attempt to breach local defences, authorities said.

Ukrainian forces also launched a barrage of drones and missiles on Saturday night, Russia’s Ministry of Defence said, with air defence systems downing 21 rockets and 16 drones over Russia’s Belgorod, Kursk and Volgograd regions.

One person died in a drone strike in the Belgorod region, and another in the Kursk region, local officials said.

Another strike set an oil depot on fire in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Luhansk region, killing four people and injuring eight more, said Leonid Pasechnik, the region’s Moscow-installed leader.

Russian forces stepped up their bombardment of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in late March. Friday’s attack signalled a tactical switch in the war by Moscow that Ukrainian officials had been expecting for weeks.

Russian military bloggers said the assault could mark the start of an attempt to carve out a “buffer zone” that President Vladimir Putin vowed to create earlier this year to halt frequent Ukrainian attacks on Belgorod and other Russian border regions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed on Friday evening that Russian forces were expanding their operations. He also called on the country’s western allies to ensure that promised deliveries of military aid would swiftly reach the front lines.

“It is critical that partners support our warriors and Ukrainian resilience with timely deliveries. Truly timely ones,” he said in a video statement. “A package that truly helps is the actual delivery of weapons to Ukraine, rather than just the announcement of a package.”

The Kremlin’s forces have repeatedly sought to exploit Ukraine’s shortages of ammunition and personnel as the flow of western military aid to Kyiv has tapered off in recent months, with promised new support yet to arrive.

Ukraine previously said Russia was assembling thousands of troops along the north-eastern border, close to the Kharkiv and Sumy regions. Intelligence officials also said they had expected an attack there though Russia’s most recent ground offensive had been focused on parts of eastern Ukraine farther south.

In the war’s early days, Russia made a botched attempt to quickly storm Kharkiv but retreated from its outskirts after about a month.

In the autumn of 2022, seven months later, Ukraine’s army pushed them out of Kharkiv. The counter-attack helped persuade western countries that Ukraine could defeat Russia on the battlefield and merited military support.

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