Kharkiv, Ukraine: Ukraine said on Sunday that its forces were pushing back Russia’s military from strategic holdouts in the east of the country after Moscow announced a retreat from Kyiv’s sweeping counter-offensive.
Ukraine’s nuclear energy agency said the final reactor at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia plant, Europe’s largest nuclear power station and a focal point of the conflict, was shut off as a safety measure.
The speed of Ukraine’s fightback against Russia’s invasion has apparently caught Moscow’s military off-guard, bringing swathes of territory Russia had controlled for months back into Ukraine’s fold.
Crates of dumped munitions and abandoned military hardware were seen scattered in territory left by the Russian forces, images posted by the Ukrainian military showed. "The liberation of settlements in the Kupiansk and Izyum districts of the Kharkiv region is ongoing," the Ukrainian military said in a general battlefield update Sunday, 200 days into Russia’s invasion.
These are key supply and logistics hubs that Russia depends on to restock its frontline positions in the east. Military observers have said their recapture by Ukraine would be a serious blow to Moscow’s military ambitions in Kharkiv.
The head of the Ukrainian military announced early Sunday that as much as 3,000 square kilometres (1,158 square miles) had been wrested from Russia since the offensive began at the beginning of this month.
That figure is already around one-third larger than the total area announced by President Volodymyr Zelensky late Saturday. On Sunday, he announced that Ukraine forces had taken a village of around 4,000 people between Kharkiv and Izyum.
"The great Ukrainian flag has been returned to Chkalovske. And it will be like that everywhere. We will cast out the occupiers from every Ukrainian town and village," he said in a video online.
Ukrainian officials this weekend hailed the "astonishing" pace of the counter-offensive and on Sunday, the country’s foreign minister used the momentum to appeal to Western allies for more stockpiles of sophisticated weapons.
"Weapons, weapons, weapons have been on our agenda since spring. I am grateful to partners who have answered our call: Ukraine’s battlefield successes are our shared ones," Dmytro Kuleba said.
"Prompt supplies bring victory and peace closer," his statement on social media read. The reaction in Moscow to the Ukrainian gains so far has been muted, but on Sunday a military map presented by the Russian defence ministry showed that its forces have made a major withdrawal from the Kharkiv region.
Russia controlled just a sliver of territory in the region’s east, behind the Oskil river, the map showed. An earlier map on Saturday showed Russia occupying much more territory in the region.
Also on Sunday an official in the border region of Belgorod said "thousands" of people had fled the Kharkiv region over the border and into Russia. More than 1,000 people were being housed in temporary shelters, the official, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said.
The Russian military made the surprise announcement Saturday that it was "regrouping" its forces from Kharkiv to the Donetsk region just south to focus its military efforts there.
But the announcement came shortly after Moscow also said it was actually sending reinforcements towards Kharkiv.
Around Balakliya, one of the first towns to be recaptured by Ukrainian troops, AFP journalists saw evidence of fierce battles, with buildings destroyed or damaged and streets mainly deserted. Iryna Stepanenko, 52, who was outside cycling for the first time in months, said she had hidden in her basement for three months.
Despite the reported Ukrainian gains, Russian forces have continued bombardments across the frontline, and in the Donetsk region, officials said shelling killed 10 people and wounded another 19.
An uptick in fighting in and around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant meanwhile has sharpened fears of another nuclear incident comparable to the Chernobyl disaster in northern Ukraine in 1986.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday warned his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron of the potential "catastrophic consequences" of what he said were Ukrainian attacks on the plant.
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