LVIV, Ukraine (AP) — Sievierodonetsk, the main focus of the fighting in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, isn’t yet blocked off by Russian troops even though they control about 80% of the city and have destroyed all three bridges leading out of it, an official said Tuesday.
“There is still an opportunity for the evacuation of the wounded, communication with the Ukrainian military and local residents,” Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai told The Associated Press by phone.
Still, Haidai acknowledged that the mass evacuation of civilians now is “simply not possible” due to the relentless shelling and fighting in the city. Ukrainian forces have been pushed out to the industrial outskirts of the city because of “the scorched earth method and heavy artillery the Russians are using,” he said.
About 12,000 people remain in Sievierodonetsk, a city with a pre-war population of 100,000. More than 500 civilians are sheltering in the Azot chemical plant, which is also being relentlessly pounded by the Russians, according to Haidai.
In all, a total of 70 civilians have been evacuated from the Luhansk region over the past 24 fours, the governor said.
Two people were killed and another wounded in the Luhansk region, according to Ukrainian authorities.
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Ukrainian authorities said Tuesday that they had have received the bodies of 64 Azovstal defenders in yet another body swap with Russia.
The statement by the Ministry for Reintegration of Occupied Territories said the exchange took place in the Zaporizhzhia region, but didn’t clarify how many bodies were returned to Russia.
It was one of the several body swaps the warring sides have conducted. Earlier this month Moscow and Kyiv exchanged 160 bodies each. Russian officials haven’t commented on the exchanges, and there was no immediate confirmation from Moscow on the swap reported by Ukraine on Tuesday.
Pope Francis has blasted the “ferocity and cruelty” of Russian troops in Ukraine while praising the “heroism” and “courage” of Ukrainians defending their land.
Francis made some of his most pointed comments about the war in a meeting with European editors of Jesuit journals last month, excerpts of which were published Tuesday in Italian dailies La Stampa and Avvenire.
While sharply criticizing Russia’s invasion, Francis also insisted there weren’t “good guys and bad guys” and that Russia was in some ways provoked by NATO’s expansion east.
“Someone might say at this point: ‘But you are in favor of Putin!’ No, I’m not,” Francis said. “It would be simplistic and wrong to say such a thing. I am simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good and bad, without thinking about roots and interests, which are very complex.”
At the same time, Francis praised the courage of Ukrainians and reasserted their right to defend themselves while blasting what he said was the financial interest in the war by weapons manufacturers to “test and sell weapons.”
“It’s true the Russians thought it’d be over in a week. But they miscalculated,” Francis said. “They found a courageous people, a people who are fighting to survive and have a history of fighting.”
Ukraine says that its air defense system shot down two Russian cruise missiles targeting the Odesa region.
Serhiy Bratchuk, spokesman for the Odesa regional military administration, thanked the country’s air defense forces for striking down “two enemy” cruise missiles.
There was no independent confirmation and it was not clear if any missiles hit their targets.
Reports of overnight shelling came from other Ukrainian regions as well, with five people were wounded in the Kharkiv region.
Day after day, Russia is pounding the Donbas region of Ukraine with relentless artillery and air raids, making slow but steady progress to seize the industrial heartland of its neighbor.
With the conflict now in its fourth month, it’s a high-stakes campaign that could dictate the course of the entire war.
If Russia prevails in the battle of Donbas, it will mean that Ukraine loses not only land but perhaps the bulk of its most capable military forces, opening the way for Moscow to grab more territory and dictate its terms to Kyiv.
A Russian failure could lay the grounds for a Ukrainian counteroffensive — and possibly lead to political upheaval for the Kremlin.
Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press