After weeks of ferocious fighting, Ukrainian forces will retreat from a besieged city in the country's east to avoid encirclement, a regional governor said Friday. The city of Sievierodonetsk, the administrative center of the Luhansk region, has faced relentless Russian bombardment. Ukrainian troops fought the Russians in house-to-house battles before retreating to a huge chemical factory on the city's edge, where they holed up in its sprawling underground structures. In recent days, Russian forces have made gains around Sievierodonetsk and the neighboring city of Lysychansk, on a steep bank across the river, in a bid to encircle Ukrainian forces.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said that the Ukrainian troops have been given the order to leave Sievierodonetsk to prevent encirclement, the AP reports. "We will have to pull back our guys," he said. "It makes no sense to stay at the destroyed positions, because the number of casualties in poorly fortified areas will grow every day." Haidai said the Ukrainian forces have "received the order to retreat to new positions and continue fighting there" but didn't give further details. He said the Russians were also advancing toward Lysychansk from Zolote and Toshkivka, adding that Russian reconnaissance units conducted forays on the city edges but were driven out by its defenders.
The governor said a bridge on a highway leading to Lysychansk was badly damaged in a Russian airstrike and became unusable for trucks. The Russian Defense Ministry declared Friday that four Ukrainian battalions and a unit of "foreign mercenaries" totaling about 2,000 soldiers have been "fully blocked" near Hirske and Zolote, south of Lysychansk. Following a botched attempt to capture Kyiv in the early stage of the invasion that started Feb. 24, Russian forces have shifted focus to the Donbas region, where the Ukrainian forces have fought Moscow-backed separatists since 2014. The Russian military now controls about 95% of Luhansk province and about half of neighboring Donetsk province, the two areas that make up the Donbas. (Read more Russia-Ukraine war stories.)