Ukrainians flee embattled Bakhmut as Zaporizhzhia missile strike death toll rises to 11
Civilians are fleeing the war-torn city of Bakhmut on foot as the West fears a major Ukrainian withdrawal.
Pressure is mounting on Ukrainian troops and civilians inside the beleaguered eastern city as another 11 people were killed after a Russian missile struck an apartment block in the city of Zaporizhzhia.
State emergency services said a woman was pulled from the debris of a five-story building struck by a Russian S-300 missile early Thursday morning.
They said that a child was among those killed, and that the rescue effort was ongoing.
Another woman was killed and two men were badly wounded by shelling while trying to cross a makeshift bridge out of Bakhmut on Saturday, according to Ukrainian troops who were assisting them.
A Ukrainian army representative told The Associated Press that it is now too dangerous for civilians to leave the city by vehicle, with people fleeing on foot instead.
Bakhmut has for months been a key target of Moscow’s eastern offensive, with Russian troops, including large forces from the private Wagner Group, inching ever closer to Kyiv’s key eastern stronghold.
An AP team near Bakhmut on Saturday saw a pontoon bridge set up by Ukrainian soldiers to help the city’s few remaining residents reach the nearby village of Khromove.
Later, they saw at least five houses on fire as a result of attacks in Khromove.
Ukrainian units over the past 36 hours destroyed two key bridges just outside Bakhmut, including one linking it to the nearby town of Chasiv Yar along the last remaining Ukrainian resupply route, according to UK military intelligence officials and other Western analysts.
The UK Ministry of Defence said on Twitter that the destruction of the bridges came as Russian fighters made further inroads into Bakhmut’s northern suburbs, ratcheting up the pressure on its Ukrainian defenders.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, assessed late on Friday that Kyiv’s actions may point to a looming Ukrainian pullout from parts of the city.
It said Ukrainian troops may “conduct a limited and controlled withdrawal from particularly difficult sections of eastern Bakhmut”, while seeking to inhibit Russian movement there and limit exit routes to the west.
Capturing Bakhmut would give Russian fighters a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks. It might also rupture Ukraine‘s supply lines and allow the Kremlin’s forces to press toward other Ukrainian strongholds in the eastern Donetsk region.
As the fighting rages on, civilians remaining in the area spoke about their daily struggles amid near-constant enemy fire.
Bakhmut resident Hennadiy Mazepa and his wife Natalia Ishkova both chose to remain in Bakhmut, even as fierce battles reduced much of the city to rubble. Speaking to the AP on Saturday, Ishkova said that they suffered from a lack of food and basic utilities.
“Humanitarian (aid) is given to us only once a month. There is no electricity, no water, no gas,” she said.
“I pray to God that all who remain here will survive.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s defence chief travelled to Ukraine‘s embattled east to inspect troops and to award them with state decorations, the Russian defence ministry said.
Defence minister Sergei Shoigu visited a command post of Russia’s eastern forces, where he was briefed by regional commander Rustam Muradov, according to a video published by the ministry. The video did not disclose the command post’s location.
In the western city of Lviv, hundreds of miles from the war’s front lines, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met the head of the European Union parliament.
Hours earlier, Mr Zelensky held talks with US attorney general Merrick Garland and top European legal officials on how to hold Russia accountable for its actions in Ukraine.
In a joint press briefing with Mr Zelensky, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said that “all those responsible” for suspected Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, must be brought to justice before a durable peace is achieved.
Ms Metsola voiced support for the EU’s announcement on Thursday that an international centre for the prosecution of the crime of aggression - the act of invading another country - would be set up in The Hague to investigate Russia’s invasion.
She also called for Ukraine to start negotiations on joining the 27-nation-bloc as early as this year, and urged western nations to keep arming the country’s military as it strives to keep Russian forces at bay in the east and south.
“Ukraine‘s future is in the European Union. We will walk all the way with you,” Ms Metsola said on Twitter late Friday.