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KYIV, June 24 (Reuters) – Ukraine was set to pull its troops from the ruined city of Sievierodonetsk after weeks of street fighting and bombardment, the regional governor said, in what would be a significant gain for Russia as it grinds out its offensive in the east.
Russian troops also occupied a town about 10 km (6 miles) further south, both sides said on Friday, as Moscow closed in on the last slivers of Ukrainian-held territory in the industrial region of Luhansk.
Moscow said it had encircled about 2,000 Ukrainian and what it called foreign troops in the area. Reuters could not independently verify any of the battlefield accounts.
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The reports came four months to the day since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops over the border, unleashing a conflict that has killed thousands, uprooted millions and reduced whole cities to rubble.
If it goes ahead, the withdrawal from Sievierodonetsk would mark the biggest reversal for Ukraine since the loss of the southern port of Mariupol in May.
The latest Russian advances appeared to bring the Kremlin closer to taking full control of Luhansk, one of Moscow’s stated war objectives, and set the stage for Sievierodonetsk’s twin city of Lysychansk to become the next main focus of fighting.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said troops in Sievierodonetsk had already received the order to move to new positions.
“Remaining in positions smashed to pieces over many months just for the sake of staying there does not make sense,” Gaidai said on Ukrainian television.
‘RED FLAG FLYING’
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, but abandoned an early advance on the capital Kyiv in the face of fierce resistance bolstered by Western arms.
Since then Moscow and its proxies have focused on the south and Donbas, an eastern territory made up of Luhansk and its neighbour Donetsk, deploying overwhelming artillery in some of the heaviest ground fighting in Europe since World War Two. read more
Ukrainian forces had held out for weeks in Sievierodonetsk, trying to wear down Russian troops through attrition and buy time for the arrival of heavy weapons supplies.
“Our forces had to withdraw and conduct a tactical retreat because there was essentially nothing left there to defend. There was no city left there and, secondly, we could not allow them to be encircled,” Oleksander Musiyenko, a Kyiv-based military analyst, said.
Ukraine on Friday again pressed for more arms, with its top general, Valeriy Zaluzhniy, telling his U.S. counterpart in a phone call that Kyiv needed “fire parity” with Moscow to stabilise the situation in Luhansk. read more