Thousands evacuated as Russia storms Ukraine border town

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Police carry an elderly man to a bus to evacuate him from the village of Bugayivka, near Vovchansk, the site of heavy fighting with Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on May 11, 2024. | Photo credit: AP

Thousands of people have been evacuated from border areas in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region as Russia continued attacks on a key city as part of a cross-border offensive, officials said on Sunday.

Russia’s surprise attack on Ukraine’s northeastern border began Friday, with troops making small advances into an area from which they had been pushed back nearly two years ago.

“A total of 4,073 people have been evacuated,” Kharkov regional governor Oleg Synegubov wrote on social media, a day after Russian forces claimed the capture of five villages in the region.

Ukraine has reported that several civilians have been killed in the offensive. Synegubov said the last victim – a 63-year-old man – was killed by artillery fire in the village of Glyboke.

On Sunday, AFP spotted groups of people evacuated around the border town of Vovchansk, most of them elderly and disoriented.

“We didn’t plan to leave. Home is home,” said 72-year-old Lyuda Zelenskaya as she hugged a trembling cat named Zhora.

Liuba Konovalova, 70, said she endured a “really terrifying” night before her evacuation.

The couple, who lived together after their children married and moved away, found themselves at an initial point for evacuees in the Kharkiv region.

Around them, volunteers helped elderly evacuees to some wooden benches where they registered and received food before being evacuated to the city of Kharkiv, the regional capital.

‘Everything… is destroyed’

Oleksiy Kharkivsky, a senior Vovchansk police officer who is helping to coordinate evacuations, said “several people” were killed by shelling on Saturday and one person was found dead under the rubble overnight.

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“The city is constantly under attack,” he said.

“Everything in the city is being destroyed… You hear explosions all the time, artillery, mortars. The enemy is hitting the city with everything they have,” he said.

The Ukrainian military said it was blocking further Russian advances.

“The attempts of the Russian occupiers to break through our defenses have stopped,” said Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrsky.

But he said the situation in the Kharkiv region had “deteriorated significantly” and was “complicated.”

Ukrainian forces “are doing everything they can to hold their defense lines and positions and inflict damage on the enemy,” he said.

Evacuation teams under fire

Kharkivsky estimated that about 1,500 people have been evacuated or fled from Vovchansk since Friday, and that there have been 32 drone attacks on the city in the past 24 hours.

He said evacuation teams had come under fire “many times”.

On Saturday, AFP saw groups of people fleeing the border area arriving in vans and cars full of bags at a shelter for evacuees near Kharkiv.

The evacuees – most of them elderly – received food and medical care and were able to sleep in bunk beds.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that Ukrainian forces had carried out counterattacks in border villages.

“Disrupting Russian offensive plans is now our main task,” he said.

The troops must “give the initiative back to Ukraine,” the president stressed, as he again urged allies to accelerate arms deliveries.

Ukrainian officials had warned for weeks that Moscow could try to attack the northeastern border regions, pressing its advantage as Ukraine struggles with delays in Western aid and manpower shortages.

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