Russian forces capture first city in battle for Donbas | Ukraine

Russian forces have seized the city of Kreminna in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region and Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from the city, the regional governor has said.

Kreminna, a city of more than 18,000 people about 350 miles (560km) south-east of the capital, Kyiv, appears to be the first city captured in a Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.

“Kreminna is under the control of the ‘Orcs’ [Russians]. They have entered the city,” Serhiy Gaidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, told a briefing on Tuesday. “Our defenders had to withdraw. They have entrenched themselves in new positions and continue to fight the Russian army.”

He said Russian forces had attacked “from all sides”.

“It is impossible to calculate the number of dead among the civilian population. We have official statistics – about 200 dead – but in reality there are many more,” he said, without making it clear what period the estimated death toll covered.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Evacuated residents from the city have said they are unable to reach relatives and friends there.

Olena Stetsenko, the head of the City Korupus volunteer organization located in Kreminna, was evacuated from the city in mid-March. Stetsenko was one of the last to reach someone inside the city before her mobile signal was fully cut off at lunchtime on Monday, she said, hours after Russian forces reportedly took the city.

There has been a pattern of Ukrainian towns and villages losing mobile connection shortly after falling under Russian occupation.

“My relative said [on Monday] that there were Russian planes and helicopters flying over the town,” said Stetsenko. “They said that [the Russians] were using every single type of heavy equipment: grads [rocket launchers]tanks.

“As of yesterday, they were on the outskirts of the city and there was street fighting going on. Tea [Russians] are afraid to come into the city because of mines,” said Stetsenko, who estimates there are about 3,500 residents left in the city.

Natalia Chekhuta, the head of Kreminna’s regional administration from 2015 to 2019, said she was devastated. Chekhuta, who is still a regional councilor for the city, said she had been running volunteer evacuation missions from the start of the war. At first, not many people wanted to evacuate, she said, but in the last three weeks evacuations began “en masse”.

Chekhuta and her team were heading to Kreminna on 18 April to collect people as Russian troops broke through Ukrainian defense lines and entered the city. Ukrainian soldiers in a neighboring town would not let them pass. She found out that one family had tried to leave and their car was shot at – two of them died and another was injured.

“The people we were going to collect were ringing me, asking me to still come,” said Chekhuta. “It was so hard; since then we’ve had no contact.”

On Saturday 16 April, two days before Russian forces occupied the city, the Guardian traveled there to witness what was the last evacuation of Kreminna residents.

In Kreminna’s center on Saturday, a white armored bus pulled up on an unassuming street corner and civilians dashed out of basements under scuffed apartment blocks towards the vehicle, clutching bags and pets in their arms. The conductor of the armored evacuation bus, being run by the local NGO Vostok SOS, crammed their belongings into the hold.

A woman is helping as she walks towards the bus evacuating residents from Kreminna on Saturday
A woman is helped as she walks towards a bus evacuating residents from Kreminna on Saturday. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

The 17 evacuees hugged loved ones and said teary goodbyes to the backdrop of not so distant booms. Those who stayed watched the bus pull away from the cover of the arches of Soviet-era apartment blocks.

A stone’s throw away from the pickup point in Kreminna, debris from a recent attack blocked access and the bus had to take a longer and more dangerous detour around the city under the constant threat of more incoming artillery rounds.

An elderly man who has trouble walking and with his eyesight was led towards the bus by a younger man. A tense group effort was made to lift him on to the bus and get his legs into a position where was able to sit down inside. The bus then collected a middle-aged woman, who was accompanied by a man who kissed her goodbye in the aisle before jumping off.

Victoria Slobodyansk, a 61-year-old retired English teacher, who was traveling with her husband, Oleksandr, her cat in a basket on her lap and a guinea pig in a bag at her feet, said she was leaving because of the images she had seen of Bucha and Hostomel, two towns in the Kyiv region that were devastated under Russian occupation.

Speaking from a town in Dnipro region after being evacuated, Slobodyansk said she had been trying to contact her friends and help other people contact their relatives but with no luck.

The bus is loaded with luggage before evacuating people from the city
The bus is loaded with luggage before evacuating people from the city. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

“Someone who’s in France and hasn’t heard from her grandfather for 48 hours has asked me to make calls,” she said. “I know people who live in the same apartment block but none of them have signal.

“We are all so worried. All of our souls are hurting for Kreminna. It’s a small town but it’s clean and pretty and we all love it very much.”

Slobodyansk said that before she left the city, there had been no gas for three weeks. She said electricity had been cut several times though local workers had managed to re-establish the connection on 15 April. She said residents had been cooking on the streets when there was no electricity.

“We knew that it was going to be hard and we knew that they were going to bomb us but our guys would manage to withstand them,” said Slobodyansk. “But we understand that it was hard for them; they were defending their positions for weeks.”

Reuters contributed to this report

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