Civilians flee embattled town as Ukrainian pullout looms

KHROMOVE, Ukraine — Pressure mounted Saturday on Ukrainian troops and civilians hunkering down in Bakhmut, as Kyiv’s forces tried to help residents flee the beleaguered eastern city amid what Western analysts say may be preparations for a Ukrainian withdrawal.

A 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 who asked not to be named for operational reasons told The Associated Press that it was now too dangerous for civilians to leave the city by vehicle, and that people had to flee on foot instead.

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Bakhmut has for months been a key target of Moscow’s grinding 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 U.K. military intelligence officials and other Western analysts.

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The U.K. defense ministry said in the latest of its regular Twitter updates 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 not only give Russian fighters a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but it might 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 raged 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.

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“I pray to God that all who remain here will survive,” Ishkova added.

Elsewhere, Ukraine’s emergency services reported Saturday morning that the death toll from a Russian missile strike Thursday that hit a five-story apartment block in southern Ukraine has risen to 10.

The Main Directorate of Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said in an online statement that rescuers overnight had pulled three more bodies from the wreckage, some 36 hours after a Russian missile tore through four floors of the building in the riverside city of Zaporizhzhia. It said that a child was among those killed, and that the rescue effort was ongoing.

Russian shelling on Saturday also killed two residents of front-line communities in the surrounding Zaporizhzhia region, the local military administration reported in a Telegram post.

A 57-year old woman and 68-year-old man also died in Nikopol, a town further west that neighbors the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as Russian forces stationed there fired artillery shells and rockets at Ukrainian-held territory across the Dnieper river, regional Gov. Serhiy Lysak reported Saturday.

In the southern Kherson region, a Russian grenade slammed into a police van in the village of Antonivka, wounding four officers, the local police force reported on its Facebook page.

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