Ukraine said Saturday its forces were managing to push back against Russian troops in fierce fighting in Severodonetsk despite Russia “throwing all its power” into capturing the strategic eastern city.
Ukrainian forces are trying to “reestablish total control” of Severodonetsk, the major of the key eastern city said.
While Russian troops had had some success and taken a “good part” of the city, Ukrainian forces had redeployed and were doing everything to reestablish full control of the city, Oleksandr Striuk said in a televised interview broadcast on Telegram.
At least seven civilians were reported killed in the Luhansk region where Severodonetsk is located and in the southern city of Mykolaiv, while a revered wooden church was reported to be on fire because of the fighting.
Luhansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said in an interview posted online that the invading forces had captured most of Severodonetsk but that the Ukrainian military was pushing them back.
“The Russian army, as we understand, is throwing all its power, all its reserves in this direction,” said Gaiday, who on Friday claimed Ukrainian troops had managed to win back a fifth of the city.
Russia’s army, however, claimed some Ukrainian military units were withdrawing from the city.
The press service of Ukraine’s presidential office said that “street fighting” was continuing in Severodonetsk and “assault operations are underway” in an industrial part of the city.
Severodonetsk is the largest city still in Ukrainian hands in the Luhansk region, where Russian forces have been gradually advancing in recent weeks after retreating or being repelled from other areas, including around the capital Kyiv.
Thousands of people have been killed, millions forced to flee and towns turned into rubble since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an all-out assault on his pro-Western neighbor on Feb. 24.
Western powers have slapped increasingly stringent sanctions on Russia and supplied arms to Ukraine but divisions have emerged on how to react.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday said Putin had committed a “fundamental error” but said Russia should not be “humiliated” so that a diplomatic solution could be found.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reacted on Saturday saying such calls “only humiliate France” and any country taking a similar position.
“It is Russia that humiliates itself. We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place. This will bring peace and save lives,” he said.
Foreign volunteers killed
Regardless of diplomatic efforts, the conflict has raged in the south and east of the country.
Ukrainian officials on Saturday announced the death of four foreign military volunteers fighting Russian forces but did not specify when or under what circumstances they died.
The International Legion of Defense of Ukraine, an official volunteer brigade, named the men and published photos of them, saying they were from Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and France.
The deaths of the two men named from the Netherlands and Australia had already been reported and France’s Foreign Ministry on Friday said a French volunteer fighter had been killed in combat.
Ukraine also reported two victims from a Russian missile strike on Odessa in the southwest, without specifying if they were dead or injured.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had struck a “deployment point for foreign mercenaries” in the village of Dachne in the Odessa region.
It also claimed a missile strike in the northeastern Sumy region on an artillery training center with “foreign instructors.”
Apart from the human toll, the conflict has caused widespread damage to Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
On Saturday, Ukrainian officials reported that a large Orthodox wooden church, a popular pilgrim site, was on fire and blamed Russian forces.
Russia continues to prove “its inability to be part of the civilized world,” Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said in a statement.
Russia’s Defense Ministry blamed “Ukrainian nationalists” for the blaze and said its forces were not operating in the area.
The church was built in 2009 on the site of another church that was blown up in 1947.