Sloviansk (Ukraine) (AFP), July 5 – Fighting raged in and around Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region on Tuesday as Russian troops tried to maintain a string of battlefield gains, while NATO pursued Finland’s momentous membership bids and Sweden.
Forces from Moscow – backed by the capture of several towns in Donbass in recent weeks – continued to push west, pounding their next key target, the city of Sloviansk, with “massive” shelling, the mayor of Moscow said. the city.
At least two people were killed and seven others injured in Russian strikes targeting its central market, following several days of equally deadly shelling.
AFP reporters on the ground saw rockets hit the market and several adjacent streets, as firefighters rushed to put out the resulting fires in the city, which had a pre-war population of around 100,000.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region, which includes Sloviansk, accused Russia of “intentionally targeting places where civilians gather”.
“It’s terrorism, plain and simple,” he said on Telegram.
In Moscow, the Defense Ministry reported that Russian forces had also targeted the northeastern city of Kharkiv with “high-precision” weapons in the past 24 hours, claiming to have killed up to 150 Ukrainian military.
Several other areas were also hit by missiles and artillery, Kyiv reported.
Meanwhile, Russia said it was investigating the torture of Russian soldiers detained in Ukraine who were recently released in a prisoner swap.
– ‘Timely’ –
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland described Tuesday as “historic”, after launching the procedures for the accession of the two countries which will extend the alliance. military with 32 members.
“The membership of Finland and Sweden will not only contribute to our own security, but also to the collective security of the alliance,” said Finn Pekka Haavisto, after signing the protocols launching the required ratification process.
Sweden and Finland have both announced their intention to abandon decades of military non-alignment and join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov hailed Tuesday’s “timely (and) correct” decision, adding on Twitter: “Who will be next…?
NATO offered Ukraine a path to membership in 2008, but it stalled amid strong Russian opposition and was further complicated by its invasion.
With the war well into its fifth month, Kyiv’s allies meeting in the Swiss city of Lugano pledged on Tuesday to support Ukraine in what risks a long and costly eventual recovery.
Two days of talks involving representatives from some 40 countries agreed on the need for reforms to boost transparency and tackle corruption as they learned that rebuilding the war-ravaged country could cost at least 750 billion dollars.
“Our work prepares for the post-war period even as war still rages,” said Swiss President and co-host Ignazio Cassis.
– ‘Full alert’ –
After abandoning its original war goal of capturing Kyiv following fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia has since focused its efforts on securing control of Donbass.
The region is mainly made up of Lugansk, which Russian forces have almost completely captured, and Donetsk to the southwest, which they are now focused on seizing completely.
In a sign that Moscow was trying to shore up supply lines for its ongoing push, Ukraine’s armed forces said Russian troops in Lugansk were “taking steps” to restore transportation infrastructure behind battle lines.
The fall of Lysychansk on Sunday, a week after the Ukrainian army also withdrew from nearby Severodonetsk, freed them to advance on Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in Donetsk.
On Tuesday, they first moved closer to the small town of Siversk – located between Lysychansk and Sloviansk – after days of shelling.
Two Ukrainian Red Cross minibuses were going there to evacuate consenting civilians, according to AFP journalists.
To the southwest, in the Moscow-occupied Kherson region, Russian troops were deploying helicopters and various artillery pieces to try to stem the Ukrainian counterattacks.
The battles are heating up there as Kremlin-installed authorities in Kherson announced that an official from Russia’s powerful FSB security services had taken control of the regional government there.
The city of Kherson, which sits near Crimea annexed to Moscow, was the first major city to fall to Russian forces in February and has since seen a campaign of so-called Russification.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that Russian forces outside Donbas were “trying to bind our troops in order to prevent them from moving to combat zones.”
“It keeps us… on full alert all along the front line,” he told Ukrinform news agency.
Meanwhile, appearing via video on Tuesday at an annual forum hosted by The Economist magazine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky predicted that Russian ally Belarus would not be drawn into the war.
But he warned that the “provocations” of his northern neighbor were likely to continue.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday accused Ukrainian forces of firing missiles at his country.