In Eastern Ukraine, attacks increase as Russia readies new offensive

CHASIV YAR, Ukraine – The Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine is intensifying in the Donetsk province, with a series of towns and villages being bombarded last week as the Russian military shifts its firepower further west after seizing the country. control of the last Ukrainian-controlled city in Luhansk Province.

These days, the attacks mostly seem random and aimless, but overall they make it clear that Russia is preparing to capture another part of Donetsk, another province in the Donbas region. .

Even if the Russian Military Command Notice of suspension To allow their main forces to regroup, their forces increased their bombardment of the five main towns and cities in the region – Bakhmut, Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Druzhkivka and Kostiantynivka – as well as surrounding villages. around.

Soldiers and emergency crews worked through the night to rescue people from a bombed-out apartment complex following a Russian attack in the village of Chasiv Yar, dozens of miles from the front line. By midday Sunday, they had pulled five people out of the rubble and recovered 15 bodies, but they said they were afraid of 10 more people lying under the crushed concrete, including a nine-year-old boy. age.

Four rockets hit the nearby town of Druzhkivka shortly after dawn on Saturday, rocking the city, smashing windows and damaging a shopping mall and other public buildings, but did not injure death. The neighboring town of Kostiantynivka was hit by two bomb blasts on Saturday afternoon, and around 9 p.m. Saturday, rockets hit two buildings in Chasiv Yar, including an apartment complex.

In Druzhkivka, Ukrainian soldiers were buried in a gymnasium, and they may have been targets, but soldiers clearing broken glass said they were out of harm’s way. Police officers inspecting several bomb sites and collecting debris said the missile was not a precision-guided munition, so it was difficult to guess a specific target. Two landed in the park and one in the shopping mall.

“It won’t damage Donbas,” said Yevgeny, 45, an IT programmer who was picking up the dust-covered but undamaged car from a rented garage.

But many of the residents of these towns, from settlements farther east, have been displaced by the raging war since 2014, and they say they recognize signs of attacks. increase.

Lyudmyla, 61, turned pale with shock as she stared at the damage of the cultural center in Druzhkivka next to her sister Svetlana, 62.

The fighting in Ukraine is also increasing in intensity on other fronts. To the south, Ukrainian forces used artillery to attack Russian troops in the area around Kherson, what officials say would become a an attempt to recapture territory which Russia has held since near the beginning of the war.

And in northeastern Ukraine on Saturday, Russia sent both a military and political signal that its forces could launch a new offensive near Kharkiv, a key city already ravaged by war and still held by Ukraine. Rocket attacks occurred there earlier in the day, including hitting a school.

In recent days, Russia has established civilian administrations in areas of Kharkiv province it controls near the border, unveiling a flag that state news agency Tass said underscores the historical connection history between the region and Russia, and that is seen as a signal that Russia is likely to annex some parts of the province it currently holds.

At the front in Donetsk province, a resident of Chasiv Yar village, Oleksandr, 31, watched as rescue work at the apartment complex stalled as machines pulled concrete slabs and emergency workers threw bricks. aside. “My grandmother was here,” he said. “It’s her bed,” he pointed to the pile of rubble. “I hope they will find her and I can arrange a funeral for her.”

He said about 10 civilians, mostly pensioners, were living in the building at the time of the strike, but members of the military had arrived two days earlier. He tried to convince his grandmother to move into his place, he said, but she refused.

Two soldiers who were inside the building were among the dead, according to another soldier who had arrived with colleagues from the front line near Bakhmut to retrieve their belongings. He gave only his name, Dyma, and his age, 28, according to military regulations. His uniform and backpack and a broken rifle, covered in brick dust, lay on the ground under a tree.

He said a plane hit the building with a missile. The aerial bombardment, Dyma said, is the most severe punishment. An aircraft dropped a parachute bomb on their position near Bakhmut, causing severe damage. “They don’t publish but we’re losing money,” he said. He added: “We need to close the skies, echoing the demands many Ukrainians make for more powerful aircraft and air defenses from our Western allies to counter air attacks. of Russia.

As he said loud bangs resounded in the distance, the shock wave was strong enough to shake the cars. The Russians had started shelling again, and assessed the distance they had hit Kostiantynivka, Dyma said.

In that town on a Saturday, three neighbors sat chatting on a bench outside the front gate in the shade. They had just had lunch together, and at 12:30, one of them, Oleksandra, came home to feed the dog.

At that time their bucolic neighborhood was attacked. Cluster bombs exploded overhead, exploding in the streets and gardens and over wooden cottages, trees crumbling and shattering windows and doors with deadly shards of metal. Alla, whom neighbors called Aunt Alla, died in the yard where two cluster bombs exploded.

“Three grandmothers were sitting on a bench together, and one was killed,” said 48-year-old Mikhail Stubin, almost shouting in anger. His mother and mother-in-law, Alla’s friends, worried about the outside of their home, seemed speechless.

Anna Kaluzhnaya, 69, said: “It was something scary. Four bomblets exploded around her house, smashing roofs and windows on all sides and shredding the trees in her garden. Metal shrapnel pierced the walls but she had prepared a small space inside the closet and survived unharmed.

“Nobody expected it in this county,” she said. “I’m pretty strong, but this is terrible.”

Hours later, a second cluster bomb attack hit the town, landing on a metal factory formerly used by Ukrainian troops as a makeshift base. One of the factory buildings was damaged and the fire burned throughout the afternoon through a large clearing below the factory. The soldiers at the gate seemed very confused and asked the journalists to leave.

The front line against the Russians was located more than 20 miles east of Druzhkivka and Kostiantynivka. However, Ukrainian soldiers regularly show up in this area, driving trucks towards the front lines, shopping in local stores and resting in government buildings and residential areas where they can. .

Near the front, there were only military vehicles on the road, and the sound of war was almost non-stop. Ukrainian artillery fired continuously from bases in and around the main towns. A pungent smell wafted through the air, and clouds of black smoke rose in some places over the horizon.

Ukrainian police guard the last checkpoint on the edge of the town of Sloviansk, hidden in the woods just a few miles from the front line. Police officers headed towards their bunker on Saturday afternoon when a Ukrainian multiple rocket launcher buzzed nearby, firing a volley towards Russian positions.

The villages outside the checkpoint are still in Ukrainian hands but have been heavily bombarded for weeks. Russian artillery hit the area on Saturday morning, burning trees and bushes by the side of the main highway. The fields were still smoldering at midday Saturday as New York Times journalists drove past.

President Vladimir V. Putin said his aim is to bring Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk under Russian control. Parts of the two provinces have been under the control of pro-Russian separatists since 2014, and Russian aggression forces have focused their efforts on the remaining area since they withdrew from the Kyiv area. at the end of March.

Russia announced a halt to its operations as its troops regrouped after fierce battles for two eastern cities in Luhansk, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. However, Ukrainian officials and civilians say fierce fighting continues in frontline villages as Russian forces pursue their assault west, and the Ukrainian military remains determined. force them to fight for every inch of land.

“The Russians won’t stop,” says Konstantin, 58, a former manager of a local chocolate factory. He listed on his finger the places that had been destroyed in the past five months. “You saw what happened to those places. I have a friend who says his village has been completely razed,” he said. “They’ll take all of these, too.”

Kamila Hrabchuk contribution report.

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