KYIV, UKRAINE (AP) — In a sign that continued and sustained Ukrainian military gains along the southern front are worrying the Kremlin, Russia is promising free accommodation for residents of the partially occupied Kherson region who wish to evacuate to Russia.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made the announcement shortly after the Russian-backed leader of Kherson, one of four Ukrainian regions illegally annexed by Moscow last month, asked the Kremlin to organize an evacuation of four towns in the region.
“Towns in the Kherson region – Kherson and Nova Kakhovka, Hola Prystan and Chornobaivka – are under daily missile fire,” Vladimir Saldo said in a video uploaded Thursday. “These missile strikes cause serious damage, first and foremost to the inhabitants. Among the targets hit by the missiles are hotels, residential buildings, markets – (places) where there are many civilians.
Saldo said a decision was made to evacuate residents of Kherson to the Russian regions of Rostov, Krasnodar and Stavropol, as well as annexed Crimea.
“I would like to ask you to help organize this process. We, the inhabitants of the Kherson region, of course know that Russia does not abandon its people, and Russia always offers a helping hand,” Saldo said.
His call comes as Ukrainian forces push their counteroffensive deeper into the southern Kherson region, albeit at a slower pace.
The move comes as the Ukrainian army continues to gain ground in the south. Ukraine’s armed forces have reported steady territorial gains along the southern front, including the recapture of 75 settlements in the Kherson region over the past month, the Ministry of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories said Thursday evening.
In the east, Ukrainian armed forces have taken over 502 settlements in the Kharkiv region, 43 in the Donetsk region and seven in the Luhansk region, the ministry said.
Saldo’s deputy, Kirill Stremousov, tried in his own statement to downplay the announcement, saying that “no one is withdrawing … no one is planning to leave the territory of the Kherson region.”
Earlier Thursday, the British military said on Twitter that “the Russian occupation authorities have probably ordered preparations for the evacuation of some civilians from Kherson.”
“It is likely that they expect the fighting to spread to the city of Kherson itself,” the UK Ministry of Defense said.
Early Friday, Russia continued its targeted attacks on critical infrastructure across Ukraine, a strategy that began on Monday, when a massive and coordinated attack on almost all parts of the country was reportedly carried out in retaliation for the explosion of a bridge financed by Moscow. connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland.
Multiple Russian missile strikes rocked the regional capital of Zaphorizhzhia overnight as the city continued to be a focal point as Ukraine pushed its counteroffensive on the southern front.
Zaporizhzhia Regional Governor Oleksandr Starukh said several explosions were reported in the city overnight at infrastructure, causing fires. There were no casualties in preliminary reports and more details on specific damage were not available. Russian forces have continually struck the regional capital and surrounding areas in recent days and weeks, raising concerns about the safety of the nearby nuclear power plant.
The regional capital is about 100 miles from the power station, the largest nuclear power station in Europe. Two days ago it was forced to revert to diesel generator power to maintain its reactor cooling systems after an attack on a substation’s communication line was lost in fighting in the region.
Missile, drone and rocket attacks on Ukraine have kept the country on edge, with air raid sirens occurring more frequently and bringing a heightened sense of urgency after Monday’s strike killed 19 people and in injured more than 100, many of them in the capital, Kyiv.