By Tom Balmforth and Marko Djurica

KYIV/POKROVSK (Reuters) – Ukrainian special forces remained in Sievierodonetsk, directing artillery fire at Russian-backed troops, an adviser to Ukraine’s president said, after the city suffered a major setback for Kyiv then that she was struggling to keep control of the east of the country.

Ukrainian shelling on Saturday forced Russian troops to suspend the evacuation of people from a chemical plant in Sievierodonetsk, just hours after the city was captured by Moscow forces, Tass news agency reported citing the local police.

The fall of Sievierodonetsk, after weeks of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, is Ukraine’s biggest defeat since it lost control of the southern port of Mariupol in May.

Ukraine called its withdrawal from the city a “tactical withdrawal” to fight from higher ground in Lysychansk, on the opposite bank of the Siverskyi Donets River. Pro-Russian separatists said forces from Moscow were now attacking Lysychansk.

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The fall of Sievierodonetsk – once home to more than 100,000 people but now a wasteland – is transforming the battlefield to the east after weeks in which Moscow’s huge firepower advantage failed. had given only slow gains.

Russia will now seek to pursue and seize more ground on the opposite bank, while Ukraine hopes that the price paid by Moscow to seize the ruins of the small town will leave Russian forces vulnerable to counterattack. -offensive.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed in a video address that Ukraine would get back the cities it lost, including Sievierodonetsk. But acknowledging the emotional toll of the war, he said: ‘We have no idea how long this will go on, how many blows, casualties and more effort it will take before we see victory on the horizon. .”

Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, told Reuters that Ukraine was carrying out a “tactical regrouping” by withdrawing its forces from Sievierodonetsk.

“Russia is using the tactic…it used in Mariupol: to wipe the city off the face of the earth,” he said. “Given the conditions, maintaining defense in ruins and open fields is no longer possible. Ukrainian forces are therefore moving to higher ground to continue defense operations.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said that “as a result of successful offensive operations” Russian forces had established full control over Sievierodonetsk and the nearby town of Borivske.

Oleksiy Arestovych, senior adviser to Zelenskiy, said some Ukrainian special forces were still in Sievierodonetsk directing artillery fire at the Russians. But he made no mention of those forces that put up direct resistance.

Russian news agency Interfax quoted a representative of pro-Russian separatist fighters as saying that Russian and pro-Russian forces had entered Lysychansk across the river and were fighting in urban areas there.

Russia also launched missile strikes across Ukraine on Saturday. At least three people have been killed and others may have been buried under rubble in the town of Sarny, about 300km west of Kyiv, after rockets hit a car wash and repair shop automobile, said the head of the local regional army. administration.

Russia denies targeting civilians. Kyiv and the West say Russian forces have committed war crimes against civilians.

Russian missiles also struck elsewhere overnight. “48 cruise missiles. Overnight. Across Ukraine,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. “Russia is always trying to intimidate Ukraine, to sow panic.”

Ukrainian Chief General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi wrote on the Telegram app that recently arrived advanced HIMARS rocket systems supplied by the United States were now deployed and hitting targets in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.

Seeking to tighten the screws further on Russia, US President Joe Biden and other Group of Seven leaders attending a summit in Germany from Sunday will agree to a ban on imports of new gold from Russia, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Britain is ready to guarantee an additional $525 million in World Bank loans to Ukraine later this year, bringing total budget support this year to $1.5 billion, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said before the G7 meeting.

“Ukraine can and will win. But they need our support to do so. Now is not the time to give up on Ukraine,” Johnson said in a statement on Saturday.

In the Ukrainian Donbass town of Pokrovsk, Elena, an elderly woman in a wheelchair from Lysychansk, was among dozens of evacuees who arrived by bus from frontline areas.

“Lysychansk was horrible last week. Yesterday we couldn’t take it anymore,” she said. “I already told my husband that if I died, please bury me behind the house.”

Europe’s biggest ground conflict since World War II entered its fifth month, after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of troops across the border on February 24 and sparked a conflict that has killed thousands and uprooted millions. It has also fueled an energy and food crisis that is shaking the global economy.

Since Russian forces were defeated in an assault on the capital Kyiv in March, they have focused on Donbass, an eastern territory made up of the provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk. Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk were the last major Ukrainian strongholds in Lugansk.

Moscow claims that Lugansk and Donetsk, where it has supported uprisings since 2014, are independent countries. He asks Ukraine to cede the entire territory of the two provinces to the separatist administrations.

(Reporting by Reuters offices; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Edmund Klamann)

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