UKRAINE said its forces were still trying to evacuate civilians from embattled Sievierodonetsk on Tuesday after Russia destroyed the last bridge to the devastated eastern city.
The Ukrainian defenders were holding out against the Russians in a battle which has seen ground change hands several times over the past few weeks.
“Russian troops are trying to storm the city, but the military is holding firm, Sievierodonetsk’s Ukrainian mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said.
He described the situation as “very difficult”.
Although the last bridge over the Siverskyi Donets river had been felled, evacuations were still being carried out “every minute when there is a lull and there is a possibility of transportation,” Stryuk said. “Every possible chance is taken.”
Ukraine says more than 500 civilians are trapped inside Azot, a chemical factory where its forces have resisted weeks of Russian bombardment and assaults that have reduced much of the city to ruins.
Regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said: “The shelling is so powerful that people can no longer stand it in the shelters, their psychological state is on the edge. The last few days, the residents are finally ready to go.”
Russia said it would give the Ukrainian fighters holed up in the chemical plant a chance to surrender on Wednesday morning. Fighters should “stop their senseless resistance and lay down their arms” from 8 a.m. Moscow time (0500 GMT), Interfax news agency quoted Mikhail Mizintsev, head of Russia’s National Defence Management Centre, as saying.
Civilians would be let out through a “humanitarian corridor”, he said.
Both sides claim to have inflicted huge casualties in the fighting over the city, Russia’s main target in its battle for the east of the country after it failed to capture the capital Kyiv in March, in the early weeks of its invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine still holds Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk’s twin city on higher ground on the western bank of the river. But with all the bridges now cut, its forces acknowledge a threat that they could be encircled in Sievierodonetsk.
Damien Megrou, spokesperson for a unit of foreign volunteers helping to defend Sievierodonetsk, said there was a risk of leaving “a large pocket of Ukrainian defenders cut off from the rest of the Ukrainian troops” – as in Mariupol, the Black Sea port that surrendered last month after months of Russian siege.
The battle for Sievierodonetsk – a city of barely more than 100,000 people before the war – is now the biggest fight in Ukraine as the conflict has shifted into a war of attrition.
Kyiv has said it is losing 100-200 soldiers killed each day, with hundreds more wounded.
Russia gives no regular figures of its own losses but Western countries say they have been massive, as Moscow has committed the bulk of its firepower to deliver one of President Vladimir Putin’s stated objectives: forcing Kyiv to cede the full territory of two eastern provinces.
Momentum in Sievierodonetsk has shifted several times over the past few weeks – with Russia concentrating its overwhelming artillery firepower on urban districts to obliterate resistance, then sending in ground troops vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Bigger battles could lie ahead for the wider Ukrainian-held pocket of the Donbas region, nearly all on the opposite bank of the river which Russian forces have found difficult to cross. Ukraine says Russia is massing to assault Sloviansk from the north and along a front near Bakhmut to the south.
In Washington, a senior U.S. defence official said Putin likely still wanted to capture much if not all of Ukraine but has had to narrow his tactical objectives in the war.
“They may make tactical gains here and there. The Ukrainians are holding up. I do not think the Russians have the capacity to achieve those grandiose objectives,” Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said.
Ukrainian officials renewed their pleas for the West to send more and better artillery as well as tanks, drones and other heavy weapons.
Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar told a briefing that Ukraine had received only 10% of the arms it needed from its allies. “Without the help of our Western partners, we will not be able to win this war,” she said.
Western countries have promised NATO-standard weapons – including advanced U.S. rockets. But deploying them is taking time.
“What we don’t have enough of are the weapons that really hit the range that we need to reduce the advantage of the Russian Federation’s equipment,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told an online press briefing on Tuesday.
Beyond the Donbas, Ukrainian officials hope that Russia’s focus on capturing the east will drain its forces from other areas and pave the way for counter-attacks to recapture other territory.
Ukraine retook the area around its second-largest city Kharkiv in May and has reported small but steady gains in recent days in the south, the biggest swathe Russia retains of the territory it seized after its invasion in February.
Serhiy Khlan, adviser to the head of the southern, mainly Russian-occupied Kherson province, said Ukraine was having tactical success retaking territory there for a second straight week. Troops had already advanced 5 km (three miles) from Tavriysk, a town on the south bank of the Dnipro river east of Kherson city, and were gradually advancing, he said.
Reuters was unable to verify any reports from the area.