Experts say the battle stalking Kherson will determine whether Ukraine can loosen Russia’s grip on the south.
The head of Crimea, annexed by Russia, has announced that he has completed civilian departures organized by Russian forces in the occupied Kherson area, southern Ukraine, amid a counterattack by the Ukrainian army.
“The work of organizing residents leaves the left side of the Dnieper [River] Sergei Aksyonov said on messaging app Telegram late Thursday, after he visited the region with the Kremlin’s domestic head Sergei Kiriyenko.
Russian-appointed authorities in Kherson have urged people to cross the right bank of the Dnieper as Ukrainian forces conduct operations south. The Ukrainian government compares this to the “deportation” of its people to the Soviet Union.
“Overcome [of the Dnieper] empty! ‘ said Aksyonov.
He posted photos of himself and other officials, including Kiriyenko, on a riverbank.
On Wednesday, a Russian official installed in Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, said at least 70,000 people had left their homes in the area within a week.
Ukraine’s military, meanwhile, said on Friday that Russia’s “so-called evacuation” was continuing.
It added that the Russian command in Kherson was trying to “hide the real losses of servicemen” to “avoid panic”.
Kherson is one of four partially occupied Ukrainian provinces that Russia claims to have annexed following its invasion of Ukraine in late February.
It includes the only land route to the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and the mouth of the Dnieper River, an important economic lifeline that divides Ukraine.
Military officials and analysts say that looming battle for the city of Kherson will determine whether Ukraine can loosen Russia’s grip on the south, which is seen as one of the biggest consequences since the start of the war.
Chechen warriors killed
In a sign that Russian forces are suffering heavy losses, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said late Thursday that 23 of his fighters had been killed in close battles. Kherson this week, with 58 others injured.
“Earlier this week, one of the Chechen units was shelled in the Kherson area,” Kadyrov, who sent his militia to fight alongside the Russian army, said on Telegram.
The Kremlin’s allies rarely disclose defeat but admit that the loss was “major on that day”.
Russian forces had promised to turn Kherson into a “fortress” and not surrender the city they had taken over early in their attack.
Aksyonov said he and Kiriyenko also visited the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – Europe’s largest nuclear facility – further north on the Dnieper River in Russian-occupied territory.
They “met with employees and assessed the general situation in the area of the plant,” he said.
Ukraine accuses Russian forces of “kidnapping” employees of the plant and last week said about 50 employees had been “detained”.
Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling the plant, raising fears of a nuclear disaster.