KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces piled pressure on Russian positions in occupied Kherson, targeting resupply routes across a major river while inching closer Friday to making a full-scale assault on one of the first urban areas Russia captured after invading the country.
As many as 2,000 Russian draftees have poured into the Kherson region – one of four provinces illegally annexed by Moscow – “to replenish losses and strengthen units on the front line," according to the Ukrainian army's general staff.
The deputy head of the Kremlin-installed regional administration in Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, said Ukrainian shelling of a Dnieper River crossing killed at four civilians late Thursday. Vadim Ilmiyev, the top health official, said 13 others were wounded in the attack.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s southern operational command, confirmed the Antonivskyi Bridge was struck but only after the start of a 10 p.m. local curfew to avoid civilian casualties.
“We do not attack civilians and settlements," Humeniuk told Ukrainian television.
Stremousov said the attack occurred some 40 minutes after the curfew's start. Among the dead and wounded were journalists from the Russia-created TV channel Tamvria, he said.
Earlier Ukrainian strikes had made the bridge inoperable, prompting Russian authorities to set up ferry crossings and pontoon bridges to transport supplies to Russian troops in Kherson, which sits on the Dnieper's western bank. Ukraine's military has regularly targeted those crossings with rockets.
Russian-installed officials have urged residents to evacuate from Kherson city for their safety and to allow the military to build fortifications. Ukraine's military reported Friday that bank employees, medical workers and teachers were getting evacuated as the city's infrastructure also began to wind down.
At least 15,000 residents of an expected 60,000 have already been relocated from the city and surrounding areas, occupation authorities said.
Kherson city, with a prewar population of about 284,000, was one of the first urban areas Russia captured when it invaded Ukraine, and it remains the largest city it holds. It is a prime target for both sides because of its key industries and major river port.
The Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions were illegally annexed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month even though not all the territory is Russian-held. Putin declared martial law in the regions as of Thursday in an apparent attempt to assert Russian authority amid a string of military setbacks and strong international criticism.
In the Donetsk region, two people were killed in 24 hours after Russian forces shelled the city of Bakhmut, Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian governor of the province. Russian troops have been unable to advance toward the city for over a month.
Some nine people were wounded in two Russian attacks in the capital of the eastern Ukraine's recently reclaimed Kharkiv region, according to Gov. Oleh Syniehubov. In the city of Zaporizhzhia, a Russian S-300 missile strike Friday wounded three people and damaged a residential building, a school and infrastructure facilities, Ukrainian authorities said.
“Each strike won’t scare anyone. It will make us stronger,” said Dniprovskyi District acting administrative chief Volodymyr Hrianysty.
In an apparent effort to keep hostilities from spinning out of control, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin on Friday reached out to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and the two had their first phone call since May 13. Defense officials have said that for some time, the Russians had not responded to U.S. efforts to set up calls.
During Friday's call, Austin “emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war against Ukraine," the Pentagon's press secretary, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, said.
Austin also spoke with Ukrainian Minister of Defence Oleksii Reznikov “to reiterate the unwavering U.S. commitment to supporting Ukraine’s ability to counter Russia’s aggression" as well as the international community's support for Ukraine's future defense, according to a Defense Department statement.
Meanwhile, Russia's deployment of aircraft and troops to air bases in Belarus raised the specter of another front on Ukraine's northern border, although officials said such a move was unlikely.
The Ukrainian army's general staff reported a heightened chance that such an attack could aim to cut supply routes of Western weapons and equipment. The build-up could also aim to divert Ukrainian resources and weaken any counteroffensive in the south.
Amid the fighting, the Kremlin insisted Friday that Putin has been open to negotiations “from the very beginning” and “nothing has changed” in that respect.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin “tried to initiate talks with both NATO and the United States even before the special military operation” — the Russian term for its war in Ukraine.
Peskov was speaking following earlier remarks by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said the Russian leader appeared to be “much softer and more open to negotiations” with Ukraine than in the past.
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