Terror, grief and rising smoke leave streets completely empty - as Ukrainians flee border town's fiercest attack yet

Smoke hung in the air on the road into the border town of Vovchansk in northeastern Ukraine after a surprise Russian offensive.

Woodland that frames the route had caught fire amid the heavy bombardments.

Sky News followed a rescue team as they raced into Vovchansk in a white van to help evacuate residents amid fears of a wider assault by Moscow.

The streets in the part of the town we entered were largely deserted.

We pulled into a residential road of bungalows.

Part the way down there was a group of five elderly residents, gathered around a bench. They did not appear to be in a hurry to flee, despite the danger and warnings from the authorities for the town's around 3,000 residents to leave.

The rescuers - a man and a woman, both volunteers, dressed in military fatigues - pulled up outside a house.

The man knocked on the door and a window, but there was no reply.

Then the front gate of the next-door house opened and a petite, white-haired woman in a bright orange headscarf appeared.

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Valentyna, 74, said her neighbours had already gone but that she was planning on staying.

The rescue team gently tried to change her mind, saying it was not safe.

Suddenly there was a boom.

It seemed to help convince Valentyna they were right.

She agreed to go but had to move quickly - every moment spent on the ground in range of Russian artillery, rocket and drone fire is high risk for the rescue team.

As Valentyna changed her socks and headscarf, she explained that life in Vovchansk had been difficult for a while. "But last night it became a lot worse," she said.

Russian forces had occupied the town and swathes of northeastern Ukraine in the first few months of the full-scale war, before they were beaten back by the Ukrainian military.

However, in recent months, shelling from the Russian side of the border has intensified, though everyone we spoke to said the scale of the Russian assault in the early hours of Friday morning was like nothing they had ever experienced.

With a few belongings gathered in two plastic bags, it was time for Valentyna to leave.

She watched as one of her rescuers used a drill to bolt her front door shut.

He also made sure the outer gate was secure before jumping over it while Valentyna climbed into the van.

The team sped off.

Exiting the town, the fire in the forest looked to be larger.

The skyline was also filled with black smoke from the distant clashes.

A few hours earlier, we visited a village close to Vovchansk that has become a makeshift assembly point for the evacuation teams and fleeing residents.

Dozens of mainly elderly men and women, looking stressed and scared, were waiting with bags of belongings - even the odd pet cat and dog - to board a large coach that was tasked with taking them to a safer location, where they would be given a place to sleep and food.

Slowly, they clambered inside.

A woman called Maryna, sitting in the coach next to her husband, Yevhen, described the horror of the previous night.

"Warplanes were dropping bombs. There were so many it seemed like the heavens were exploding. It was so scary, so loud," she said.

The couple explained that they - like many people in this part of the country - had survived the pain of Russia's occupation.

"We have lived through a lot of things. Both of us were tortured and interrogated by the Russians," Maryna said.

Her husband added: "We don't want to go back there again."

Maryna continued: "There is danger that if they occupy again, they will detain us again. Nobody knows whether this time we would get out alive."

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Once everyone was onboard, the coach departed, but soon yet more evacuees arrived - each one with a story about this new crisis.

Another woman, also called Valentyna, wept as she described having to leave her husband behind in Vovchansk when she fled.

"He didn't want to leave," she said. "Maybe he will change his mind."

Tamaz Gambarashvili, the mayor of town, was also at the evacuation assembly point.

He said around 500 people had been evacuated - all of them voluntarily - during the day.

"Since last night it started - massive shelling on the town," the mayor told Sky News.

"Our people haven't seen such a level of shelling, never before."

Two people were killed and at least five wounded in the onslaught.

Asked if he was worried about the Russians seizing this land once more, Mr Gambarashvili said: "We are not thinking that they will occupy this territory again because we believe in our armed forces. They will fight back and repel them."

However, he said the Russians were inflicting huge damage on Vovchansk.

As for whether he had a message for the Russian invaders, the mayor said: "I would like to say: enough. Enough killing people, enough destruction…You need to stop this war."