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Ukraine counterattack recaptures parts of Sievierodonetsk in Donbas | Ukraine

Ukraine has staged a counterattack on the frontline city of Sievierodonetsk and recaptured a fifth of the city it had previously lost to the Russian invaders, according to the head of the region.

Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk, said Russian forces were giving up recent gains in the city, as reports also emerged of foreign fighters joining the battle for the easternmost city held by Kyiv in the fiercely contested Donbas.

The governor told Ukrainian television that Russia had “previously managed to capture most of the city” – but added in a tweet that the military had pushed them back by 20%. “They are really suffering huge losses,” he said.

The claims are hard to verify amid the heavy fighting. The Russians have concentrated their forces on trying to surround and capture the city in the past two weeks, advancing at a rate of 500 metres to a kilometre a day.

Ukrainians fighting on the eastern frontline estimated that their forces controlled “around 30%” of Sievierodonetsk on Saturday, greater than some rough estimates from late last week. They said Russian forces were running out of infantry troops and were unable to push forward.

Slava Vladimirovich, a Ukrainian soldier with the Donbas battalion, said the Russian army was pounding the neighbouring city of Lysychansk.

Two civilians died in a Russian artillery attack, he said. Thousands of civilians were still in the city, but many seemed reluctant to leave. “We were supposed to evacuate ten people. Only three turned up. Poor people are afraid of losing what little they have. There is no water in the city and long queues of civilians waiting at distribution points.”

Foreign fighters from countries including Australia, Georgia, France and Brazil were also being deployed by Ukraine in Sievierodonetsk, according to a video report circulating widely. It features an interview with a masked soldier, who said he was from Australia, saying he had “stepped up” to join the fighting.

A second soldier, speaking English with an American accent, said he was “a 22-year-old kid” from Georgia and promised to help push Russians back. “We’re on the right side of the history,” he added.

Residents are evacuated from Slavyansk on 4 June.
Residents are evacuated from Slavyansk on 4 June. Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP

But the risks to foreign fighters in a brutal and deadly conflict remain considerable. Ukraine’s International Legion acknowledged on Saturday that four people from the Netherlands, Australia, Germany and France had been killed.

It named them as Ronald Vogelaar, Michael O’Neill, Björn Benjamin Clavis and Wilfried Blériot. Vogelaar, 55, was previously reported by Dutch media to have been killed by artillery fire near Kharkiv last month; while O’Neill, 47, was said to be a humanitarian worker when it was reported he had been killed in late May.

Blériot, 32, meanwhile, had appeared in a film early in March, where he told the Argentinian publication Clarin that he was “ready to die” as he headed out from Poland. He said he had spent “a year in the French army” and cried when he talked about his two young children.

Russia wants to capture Sievierodonetsk, which had a population of 100,000 before the war, and Lysychansk, which is across the river, to complete the capture of the Luhansk oblast, one of the two Donbas regions claimed by Russia.

From there they hope to capture the Ukrainian cities of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk in the neighbouring Donetsk oblast.

Loud explosions could be heard from the centre of Slavyansk on Saturday, from Russian artillery in the distance and from answering Ukrainian fire. The city’s air raid siren went off repeatedly.

Some people were out and about on the streets of Slavyansk buying food. The city is without gas and water and has intermittent electricity. Many residents have left, but some have remained behind and another group has returned to frontline Donbas towns after fleeing and then running out of money.

A wooden Orthodox church, close to the Sviatohirsk monastery, around 12 miles north of Slavyansk, was pictured burning as a result of the fighting. Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said four people were killed and four wounded following a Russian attack. Three hundred people, including 60 children, were said by Zelenskiy to be sheltering in the monastery complex.

British defence intelligence said that Russia had been able combine “airstrikes and massed artillery fire to bring its overwhelming firepower to bear” and so support “its creeping advance”.

A woman pushes a baby stroller near a building damaged during a Russian attack in Slavyansk on 4 June.
A woman pushes a baby stroller near a building damaged during a Russian attack in Slavyansk on 4 June. Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP

But the British said it had come at a cost. The use of “unguided munitions has led to the widespread destruction of built-up areas in the Donbas”. Film released by Haidai, the Luhansk governor, early on Saturday showed apartment blocks damaged and on fire, while shelling was audible near by.

Haidai acknowledged that the situation for the Ukrainians in Sievierodonetsk remained difficult, but said he believed the defenders could now hold out for another fortnight. A Russian victory in that timescale was “not realistic”, he added.

After that, the governor said, he hoped that newly promised western Himars – multiple-launch rocket systems – could tip the balance in Kyiv’s favour, by allowing Ukraine to target the Russians at a greater distance than before.

“As soon as we have enough western long-range weapons, we will push their artillery away from our positions. And then, believe me, the Russian infantry, they will just run,” the governor added.

The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, said on Friday that he had been told by Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, that Russia would now “accelerate” the invasion. New tactics that “will make it possible to significantly increase the effectiveness of offensive manoeuvres” had been identified, Kadyrov added.

But in an overnight assessment, the Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank closely following the conflict, said it was sceptical about the claims made. On speeding the rate of advance, the institute said it believed “Russian forces are unlikely to be able to do so”.

Russian authorities began issuing passports in Kherson and Melitopol on Friday, according to the institute. Ukraine’s military said that the Russian occupiers faced growing resistance in the southern region, which had forced Moscow to reinforce its troops there.

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