Russian forces are trying to cut off the strategic twin city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine, after reducing Sievierodonetsk to the rubble.
Lysychansk is poised to become the next main focus of fighting, as Moscow has launched massive artillery bombardments and airstrikes on areas away from the heart of the eastern battles.
According to Russian news agency Interfax, Russian troops entered Lysychansk, the last Kyiv-held town in Luhansk province, on Saturday after Ukrainian forces were ordered to withdraw from Sievierodonetsk.
If Lysyshansk falls, the entire Luhansk region, which together with Donetsk constitutes the eastern region of Donbass, could fall under Russian control, marking another strategic breakthrough for Russian President Vladimir Putin since the start of the invasion.
“The People’s Militia of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Russian army have entered the city of Lysychansk,” a representative of the pro-Russian separatists, Andrei Marochko, said on Telegram. “Street fights are taking place now,” he added.
The claim could not be independently verified and there was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian side.
However, Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk province, said on Facebook that Russian and separatist fighters were trying to block Lysychansk from the south.
Haidai said the Azot chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk and the villages of Synetsky and Pavlograd, and others, were bombed, but made no mention of casualties.
Vitaly Kiselev, an interior ministry official in the self-declared republic of Luhansk, which is recognized only by Russia, told Tass news agency it would take another week and a half to gain control total of Lysychansk.
Around 95% of Lugansk is already under the control of Russian troops while around half of Donetsk is also occupied by Moscow forces.
In a separate development on Saturday, 20 rockets “fired from the territory of Belarus and from the air” targeted the village of Desna in the northern Chernihiv region, Ukraine’s northern military command said.
The command added that infrastructure had been hit, but no casualties had yet been reported.
Although officially not involved in the conflict, Belarus has provided logistical support to Moscow since the start of the invasion.
“Today’s strike is directly linked to the Kremlin’s efforts to drag Belarus into the war in Ukraine as a co-belligerent,” Ukraine’s intelligence service said.
The attack came ahead of a scheduled meeting between Putin and his Belarusian counterpart and close ally, Alexander Lukashenko, in St Petersburg on Saturday.
Meanwhile, four Russian rockets hit a “military object” in Yaroviv, Lviv regional governor Maksym Kozytskyy said. He did not give further details about the target, but, according to the Associated Press, Yaroviv has a major military base used to train fighters, including foreigners who have volunteered to fight for Ukraine.
Although far from the front lines, the Lviv region, described as the soul of Ukraine and a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism, has come under fire at various times during the war.
In what has been described as the most difficult time for Ukrainian troops since the invasion began, Kyiv called for more weapons again on Friday. Its top general, Valeriy Zaluzhny, told his American counterpart in a phone call that Kyiv needed “parity of fire” with Moscow to stabilize the situation in Luhansk.
AFP, Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report