Kyiv, UKRAINE (AP) — Russian-installed authorities ordered all residents of the southern Ukraine city of Kherson on Saturday to evacuate “immediately” ahead of an expected advance by Ukrainian forces. After Russia invaded the country, it launched a counterattack to recapture one of the first urban areas it captured.
In a post on the Telegram message service, the pro-Kremlin regime in the region called on civilians to use boats across major rivers to move deeper into Russian-held territory, citing the tense situation at the front and “Terrorist attack by Kyiv,” citing the threat of artillery fire.
Kherson has been in Russian hands since the early days of the February invasion. The city is the capital of the region of the same name, one of four regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and placed under Russian martial law.
On Friday, Ukrainian forces came close to a full-on assault on the capital as they shelled Russian positions in the province and targeted pro-Kremlin forces’ supply routes across the Dnieper.
Russian-installed officials were reported to be desperately trying to turn the city of Kherson into a fortress while attempting to relocate tens of thousands of residents.
According to the Ukrainian Army General Staff, the Kremlin has pumped as many as 2,000 conscripts into the surrounding area to replenish losses and strengthen frontline forces.
The Dnieper stands out in regional battles because it performs an important function. It’s a crossroads for supplies, military, and civilians. Drinking water in Crimea annexed to southern Ukraine. Power generation from a hydroelectric power plant. Much of the area is under Russian control, including power plants and canals that supply water to Crimea.
Kherson’s Kremlin-backed authorities previously announced plans to evacuate as many as 60,000 civilians across the river with all Russian-appointed officials.
Another Russian-installed official on Saturday estimated that about 25,000 people from across the region had crossed the Dnieper.
“Today, people are on the move because the priority is life,” he said, in a clear response to Ukraine and the West’s concerns about possible forced deportations by Moscow.
Ukrainian authorities have urged local residents to block their relocation, with one local official claiming Moscow wanted to hold civilians hostage and use them as human shields.
Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of people in central and western Ukraine woke up on Saturday to blackouts and regular gunfire as Ukrainian air defenses attempted to shoot down drones and incoming missiles.
Russia is in the latest phase of the war as it ramps up attacks on power plants, water systems and other key infrastructure across the country as it approaches eight months into the war.
The Ukrainian Air Force said in a statement on Saturday that Russia had launched a “massive missile strike” targeting “critical infrastructure” and shot down 18 of 33 air and sea-launched cruise missiles. added.
Air raid sirens rang twice across Ukraine by early afternoon, prompting residents to rush to shelters.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on the Telegram message service that “several rockets” aimed at the capital were shot down on Saturday morning.
Similar reports were made by the governors of six western and central provinces and the southern Odessa region on the Black Sea.
In a morning statement, the president’s office said five drones carrying explosives were shot down in the central Cherkasy region, southeast of Kyiv.
Ukraine’s top diplomat said on Saturday that the day’s attack was proof that Ukraine needed a new, beefed-up air defense system in the West “without a minute delay”.
“Air defense saves lives,” Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
Almost 1.4 million households have lost power as a result of the strike, Kirilo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said in Telegram on Saturday. He said about 672,000 households in the western Khmelnytsky region were affected, and a further 242,000 households were without power in Central Cherkasy Oblast.
Most of the western city of Khmelnytsky, which straddles the Buk River and was home to about 275,000 people before the war, suffered a power outage shortly after local media reported several loud explosions.
In a social media post on Saturday, the city council urged locals to stockpile water “just in case they run out within an hour.”
The mayor of Lutsk, a city of 215,000 in the far west of Ukraine, made a similar appeal on Telegram on Saturday. Power in Lutsk was partially knocked out after a Russian missile hit a local energy facility, Ihor Polishchuk said. He later added that shockwaves from the strike hit his home, causing civilians to burn and one power plant to be damaged beyond repair.
The central city of Uman, an important Hasidic Jewish pilgrimage site that numbered about 100,000 residents before the war, also plunged into darkness after a rocket struck a nearby power plant, local officials said. told Telegram.
Ukraine’s state-owned energy company responded to the strike by announcing rolling blackouts in Kyiv and 10 regions of Ukraine to stabilize the situation.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, Uklenergo accused Russia of attacking “energy installations in the main network of the western region of Ukraine.” The scale of the destruction, from October 10th, he claims, is comparable to the fallout from Moscow’s first coordinated attack on the Ukrainian energy grid on the 12th.
Both Ukrenergo and Kyiv officials have urged Ukrainians to conserve energy. Earlier this week, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on consumers to limit their electricity use between 7am and 11am daily and avoid using energy-hungry appliances such as electric heaters.
Over the past two weeks, Moscow has stepped up its attacks on critical civilian infrastructure across Ukraine. About 40% of the country’s power system has been severely damaged, officials said. Zelenskyy said earlier in the week that her 30% of Ukrainian power plants had been destroyed since Russia launched its first wave of targeted attacks on October 10.
Kozlowska reports from London.