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Heavy fighting continues in the Donbass, with Ukrainian forces resisting heavy shelling in the key city of Syevyerodonetsk and the surrounding region as Russian forces seek to complete the encirclement of the area and cut off defenders and civilians who remain inside the pocket.

The British Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence newsletter on 17 June that over the past 24 hours the Russian military had apparently continued to try to regain momentum on the axis of Popasna, some 55 kilometers south of Syevyerodonetsk, from which they seek to encircle the town.

The Ukrainian General Staff declared late on June 16 that struggle had been particularly heavy in and around Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk, the Ukrainian-held twin towns on the opposite bank of the Siverskiy Donets River.

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Fighting in Syevyerodonetsk has been going on for weeks in a battle that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says could determine the fate of Donbass.

Moscow would control the entire Luhansk region if its troops managed to seize Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk.

The military governor of the eastern Luhansk region, Serhiy Hayday, said around 10,000 civilians, out of a pre-war population of 100,000, remained trapped in Syevyerodonetsk as essential supplies ran out.

Many civilians take shelter in bunkers under the city’s Azot chemical plant.

Syevyerodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk told Ukrainian television on June 16 that there were around 500 civilians trapped in shelters at the plant.

The United Nations estimated the number of civilians still trapped in the city at 12,000.

“Constant fighting and shelling has been going on there for almost a week now,” he said, warning that shelling could damage ammonia storage and trigger a chemical disaster. “It’s a miracle the whole town wasn’t hit.”

Across the river in Lysychansk, an airstrike hit a building housing civilians on June 16, killing at least three people and injuring at least seven, according to Hayday.

Ukrainian soldiers managed to repel Russian advances in other areas of the front, while in Kharkiv Russian troops halted Ukrainian troops by deploying artillery.

Near Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya, Russia also carried out attacks to pin down Ukrainian troops.

Earlier on June 16 on Ukrainian television, Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov raised the possibility of a threat from Belarus. The officials meeting on June 15 discussed the situation in the neighboring country, the state of the Belarusian army and the number of Russian soldiers present.

Danilov said there will be a inspection in four areas to assess readiness, adding that the issue “is under the control of the president.”

In the northeastern region of Sumy, Russia launched a missile strike, killing four people and wounding six others, Dmytro Zhyvytskiy, head of the Sumy regional administration, said on Telegram.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, quoted by CNN, said the number of Ukrainians who had died since Russia invaded Ukraine in February was likely in the tens of thousands. Reznikov said he “hopes” the figure is below 100,000.

Reznikov and other officials met with representatives of about 50 countries in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 16. Ukraine’s demand for more heavy weapons was the main topic of the meeting.

Britain has announced that it will supply Ukraine with 20 multiple rocket launcher systems. Defense Minister Ben Wallace confirmed that Britain would send the units to Ukraine.

The systems were purchased from a Belgian arms company and must be handed over directly to Kyiv in addition to “a small number of rocket launchers from British Army stock”, the BBC reported.

According to Wallace, in some places Russia has an artillery advantage 20 times greater than the Ukrainian army.

The June 17 British intelligence bulletin also highlighted dissent among the Russian public over support for the war.

“Although the majority of Russians tell pollsters that they support the ‘special military operation’, elements of the population are both actively and passively demonstrating their opposition,” the report said.

British intelligence also mentioned the existence of a group of Russian recruits called the Freedom Legion for Russia who “almost certainly deployed in combat alongside the Ukrainian military”.

Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior Zelenskiy official, dismissed Russia’s latest comments on its willingness to resume negotiations as “an attempt to deceive the world”.

Russia wants to look like it’s ready to talk while planning to stab Ukraine in the back, he said. Kyiv would certainly return to negotiations, but only at the right time, he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, held a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, their second since Russia attacked Ukraine.

China has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and is in talks on increasing Russian gas sales.

With reporting from Reuters, BBC, AFP and dpa