Russia orders Kherson citizens to leave ‘immediately’ for Ukrainian progress

Kiev: Russian-installed authorities have ordered all residents of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson to leave “immediately” on Saturday, pending an expected advance of Ukrainian troops who are waging a counter-offensive to retake one of the first urban areas that Russia took after the invasion of the country. In a message on the Telegram messaging service, the regional pro-Kremlin administration called on citizens to take boat crossings across a major river deeper into the Russian-occupied territory, citing a tense situation at the front and the threat of shelling and alleged ‘terror attacks’ by Kiev.

Kherson has been in Russian hands since the early days of the invasion in February. The city is the capital of a region of the same name, one of four regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and then placed under Russian martial law. On Friday, Ukrainian forces bombed Russian positions in the province, bringing them closer to a full-scale attack on the capital as they targeted the supply routes of pro-Kremlin forces across the Dnieper River.

It was reported that Russian-installed officials were desperately trying to turn the city of Kherson – a prime target for both sides due to its important industries and major river and sea port – into a fortress while trying to relocate tens of thousands of residents. According to the general staff of the Ukrainian army, the Kremlin sent as many as 2,000 conscripts to the surrounding region to make up for losses and bolster frontline units.

The Dnieper River plays a prominent role in the regional struggle as it performs vital functions, crossing points for supplies, troops and civilians; drinking water for southern Ukraine and the annexed Crimean peninsula; and power generation from a hydroelectric power station. Much of the area, including the power plant and a canal that supplies water to Crimea, is under Russian control.

Kherson’s Kremlin-backed authorities have previously announced plans to evacuate all Russian-appointed officials and as many as 60,000 civilians across the river, in what local leader Volodymyr Saldo said would be an “organized, gradual displacement.”

Another Russian-installed official on Saturday estimated that about 25,000 people from across the region had crossed the Dnieper. In a Telegram post, Kirill Stremousov claimed that citizens move voluntarily.

“People are actively moving because today’s priority is life. We are not dragging anyone anywhere,” he said, in apparent response to Ukrainian and Western concerns about possible forced transfers by Moscow. Ukrainian officials have urged local residents to resist attempts to relocate them, with a local official claiming Moscow wanted to take civilians hostage and use them as human shields.

Elsewhere on Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people in central and western Ukraine were woken up by power cuts and periodic bursts of gunfire as Ukrainian air defenses tried to shoot down drones and incoming missiles. Russia has intensified its attacks on power plants, water supply systems and other key infrastructure across the country, the final phase of the war approaching eight months.

The Ukrainian Air Force said in a statement on Saturday that Russia had launched “a massive missile strike” on “critical infrastructure”, adding that it had shot down 18 of the 33 cruise missiles launched from the air and sea.

In the early afternoon, air-raid sirens blared twice across Ukraine, causing residents to rush into the air raid shelters. “Several rockets” aimed at the capital were shot down on Saturday morning, Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram’s messaging service. Similar reports were made by the governors of six western and central provinces, as well as the southern region of Odessa on the Black Sea.

The presidential office said in its morning statement that five explosive-laden drones were downed in the central Cherkasy region southeast of Kiev. Ukraine’s top diplomat said on Saturday that the day’s attacks were proof that Ukraine needed new western-strengthened air defense systems “without a minute’s delay”. “Air defense saves lives,” Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Telegram on Saturday that nearly 1.4 million households have lost power as a result of the strikes. He said about 672,000 homes in the western region of Khmelnytskyi were affected, while another 242,000 were affected by disturbances in the central Cherkasy province.

Most of the western city of Khmelnytskyi, which straddles the Bug River and was home to some 275,000 people before the war, was without electricity shortly after local media reported several loud explosions. The city council called on local residents to store water “in case it runs out in an hour too,” in a social media post on Saturday.

The mayor of Lutsk, a city of 215,000 in the far west of Ukraine, made a similar appeal to Telegram on Saturday. Power in Lutsk was partially cut after Russian missiles hit local power facilities, Ihor Polishchuk said. He later added that a civilian had suffered burns when a shockwave from the strike hit his home, and that a power plant had been damaged beyond repair.

The central city of Uman, a major pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews that had a population of some 100,000 before the war, was also plunged into darkness after a rocket hit a nearby power plant, regional authorities said on Telegram.

The Ukrainian state energy company responded to the strikes by announcing that rolling power cuts would be imposed in Kiev and 10 Ukrainian regions to stabilize the situation. In a Facebook post on Saturday, Ukrenergo accused Russia of attacking “energy facilities within the main grids of Ukraine’s western regions”.

It claimed the extent of the destruction was comparable to the fallout from Moscow’s first coordinated attack on Ukraine’s energy grid, October 10-12. Both Ukrenergo and officials in Kiev have urged Ukrainians to conserve energy.

Earlier this week, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on consumers to limit their power consumption between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. Daily, and avoid using energy-hungry devices such as electric heaters. Over the past two weeks, Moscow has stepped up its attacks on key civilian infrastructure across Ukraine. About 40% of the country’s electrical grid has been severely damaged, officials said. Zelenskyy said earlier this week that 30% of Ukraine’s power plants have been destroyed since Russia launched the first wave of targeted attacks in October.

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