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Firefighters spray water onto fire at the market after shelling, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Sloviansk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 5, 2022.MARKO DJURICA/Reuters

Ukraine has so far staved off any major Russian advance into the north of its Donetsk region, but pressure is intensifying with heavy shelling, missile and rocket fire on the city of Sloviansk and nearby populated areas, Kyiv’s military said on Wednesday.

Russia and separatist proxies were already in control of the southern part of Donetsk province when they effectively completed the seizure of the neighbouring Luhansk region on Sunday with the capture of Lysychansk, much of which now lies in ruins.

Moscow says ejecting the Ukrainian military out of both regions is central to what it calls its “special military operation” to ensure its own security, a more than four-month-long offensive that the West calls an unprovoked war.

Donetsk and Luhansk provinces comprise the Donbas, the eastern, heavily industrial region of Ukraine that has become Europe’s biggest battlefield for generations and over which Russia wants to wrest control for separatists it supports.

In its evening note on Wednesday, Ukraine’s general staff suggested that Russian forces were intensifying pressure on Ukrainian defenders along the northern flanks of the Donetsk region.

It said Russian forces were bombarding several Ukrainian towns with heavy weaponry to enable ground forces to advance southward into the region and close in on Sloviansk.

“The enemy is trying to improve its tactical position …(They) advanced … before being repulsed by our soldiers and retreating with losses,” the Ukrainian military update said.

Other Russian forces, it said, aimed to seize two towns en route to the city of Kramatorsk, south of Sloviansk, and were also trying to take control of the main highway linking Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

Russia had also carried air strikes in support of ground forces in the region, it added.

“We are holding back the enemy on the (Luhansk/Donetsk) border,” Luhansk Governor Serhiy Gaidai earlier told Ukrainian TV earlier.

Sloviansk Mayor Vadym Lyakh told a video briefing the city had been shelled for the last two weeks.

“The situation is tense,” he said, adding that 17 residents had been killed there since President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Russia’s defence ministry says it does not target civilians and on Wednesday said it was using high-precision weapons to take out military threats.

It said it had destroyed two advanced U.S.-made HIMARS rocket systems and their ammunition depots in Donetsk province. Ukraine denied this and said it was using HIMARS to inflict “devastating blows” on Russian forces.

Russia’s invasion has killed thousands, displaced millions and flattened cities. It has also raised global energy and food prices and the spectre of famine in poorer countries as Ukraine and Russia are both major grain producers.

To the south, the port of Mykolaiv was also being heavily shelled, Oleksandr Senkevych, its mayor, told a briefing. The city had shed about half of its pre-war population of half a million.

“There are no safe areas in Mykolaiv,” he said. “I am telling the people … that they need to leave.”

In Kramatorsk, which Russian forces are expected to try to capture in coming weeks, Ukrainian soldiers and a handful of civilians ran errands in green-painted cars and vans on Wednesday. Much of the population has left.

“It’s almost deserted. It’s spooky,” said Oleksandr, a 64-year-old retired metal worker.

He was unlikely to follow official advice to evacuate, he said, despite an increase in missile strikes on the city. “I’m not looking for death but if I encounter it it’s better to be at home,” he said.

A group of artillerymen, who declined to give their names, were smoking outside a bar. They said it would make their lives easier if civilians evacuated front-line cities.

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, in the northeast but outside the Donbas, was also being subjected to “constant” longer-range Russian shelling, with several buildings destroyed overnight, Mayor Ihor Terekhov said on Ukrainian TV.

“Russia is trying to demoralize Kharkiv but it won’t get anywhere,” he said. Ukrainian defenders pushed Russian armoured forces well back from Kharkiv early in the war, and Terekhov said around one million residents remained there.

Russia says it was forced to try to demilitarize Ukraine after the West ignored its pleas to guarantee that its fellow former Soviet republic and neighbour would not be admitted to NATO. Moscow says it also had to root out what it said were dangerous nationalists and protect Russian speakers.

Ukraine and its Western backers say Russia’s stated aims are a pretext for an unprovoked, imperial-style land grab.

In a sign that Moscow is not preparing to wind down its operation any time soon, Russia’s parliament on Wednesday rushed through bills requiring businesses to supply goods to the armed forces and obliging employees at some firms to work overtime.

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