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Russia begins evacuating civilians from Ukraine’s Kherson

KYIV, Ukraine ― The Russian-installed governor of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region proposed residents take their children and leave for safety, in one of the starkest signs yet that Moscow is losing its grip on territory it claims to have annexed.

Russia’s TASS news agency reported a first group of civilians fleeing from Kherson was expected to arrive in Russia’s Rostov region as soon as today.

“Every day, the cities of Kherson region are subjected to missile attacks,” Russian-installed Kherson administration chief Vladimir Saldo said in a video message.

“As such, the leadership of Kherson administration has decided to provide Kherson families with the option to travel to other regions of the Russian Federation to rest and study,” he said.

“We suggested that all residents of the Kherson region, if they wish, to protect themselves from the consequences of missile strikes, … go to other regions,” he said. People should “leave with their children”.

The prompt to go applied foremost to residents on the west bank of the Dnipro River, he said. That includes the regional capital, the only major Ukrainian city Russia has captured intact since invading in February.

Kherson is one of four partially occupied Ukrainian provinces that Russia claims to have annexed in recent weeks, and arguably the most strategically important. It controls both the only land route to the Crimea peninsula Russia seized in 2014, and the mouth of the Dnipro, the 2,200-kilometre-long (1,367-mile-long) river that bisects Ukraine.

Since the start of October, Ukrainian forces have burst through Russia’s front lines there in their biggest advance in the south since the war began. They have since been advancing rapidly along the west bank, aiming to cut off thousands of Russian troops from supply lines and potential escape routes across it.

TASS quoted the governor of Russia’s Rostov region, which borders on the Ukrainian territories Russia claims to have annexed, as saying his region was prepared to host anyone who chose to leave Kherson, with the first group expected on Friday.

Blow to annexation claim

A flight of civilians from Kherson would be a major blow to Russia’s claim to have annexed around 15 per cent of Ukraine’s territory and incorporated an area the size of Portugal into Russia.

Russia has concentrated many of its best-trained troops to defend its grip on Kherson’s west bank. But that force can only be supplied across the river, which is several kilometres wide and has few crossings.

In the past two weeks Ukraine has recaptured a swath of territory, with its forces bearing down towards the 3-km-long (2-mile-long) Nova Kakhovka dam that provides one of the last river crossings.

Mykolaiv, the nearest big Ukrainian-held city to Kherson, came under massive Russian bombardment yesterday, with civilian facilities hit, local officials said.

Regional governor Vitaly Kim said the top two floors of a five-story residential building were destroyed and the rest were under rubble. Video footage provided by state emergency services showed rescuers pulling out an 11-year-old boy who Kim said had spent six hours trapped under the rubble.

In the east, three Russian missiles exploded yesterday morning near the central market in Kupiansk, a major railway junction city that Ukrainian forces recaptured during their big advance there in September.

The missiles destroyed shops, carpeting surrounding streets with glass shards, rubble, and twisted metal sheets.

Dmytro, who declined to give his last name, trudged up the debris-strewn steps of his shoe store to salvage whatever undamaged inventory he could from the devastated interior.

“Who knows? They consider it a military object,” he said sarcastically when asked why he thought the Russians hit Kupiansk’s commercial centre.

Ukraine’s gains in the south this month followed rapid gains in the east since September.

‘Dangerous times’

Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded to the battlefield setbacks with dramatic moves to escalate the conflict: proclaiming the annexation of territory, calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists and repeatedly threatening to use nuclear weapons to protect Russia.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday after a two-day meeting of defence ministers that the alliance would not drop support for Ukraine because of Moscow’s nuclear threats.

“We will not be intimidated,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “…They know that if they use (a) nuclear weapon against Ukraine, it will have severe consequences.”

This week, Russia launched the biggest air strikes since the start of the war, firing more than 100 cruise missiles mainly at Ukraine’s electricity and heat infrastructure. Putin said the strikes were retaliation for a blast on Saturday that damaged Russia’s bridge to Crimea.

Although the nationwide air strikes have tapered since Tuesday, Russian forces have continued to strike towns and cities closer to the front.

At the Nato meeting in Brussels, the allies unveiled plans to also jointly beef up Europe’s air defences with Patriot and other missile systems.

“We are living in threatening, dangerous times,” said German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht at a signing ceremony where Germany and more than a dozen European Nato members committed to jointly procuring weapons for a “European Sky Shield”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Thursday that Ukraine still had about only 10 per cent of what it needed to protect itself against Russian air attacks. ― Reuters

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