Russia said on Friday it was sending reinforcements to the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv says it has retaken dozens of settlements as part of a wider counteroffensive.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his evening speech that Ukrainian troops had recaptured 30 areas from Russian forces.
“We are gradually taking control of new settlements. We are returning the Ukrainian flag and the protection of our citizens everywhere,” he said, calling on Ukrainians to report any crimes committed by the occupying forces.
In the Kharkiv region, Ukrainian officials have exhumed two bodies in a village recently recaptured from Russia, as part of an investigation into a possible war crime.
The village of Grakove was the scene of heavy fighting in the first weeks of the Russian invasion.
Russian state media broadcast images of military vehicles driving on cobbled roads and dirt roads in the Kharkiv region, emblazoned with the letter “Z”, a symbol of the invasion of Moscow.
A Moscow-based official, Vitaliy Ganchev, said in televised remarks that “fierce battles” were underway near the town of Balakliya, which Ukraine said it recaptured on Thursday.
“We don’t control Balakliya. Attempts are being made to dislodge Ukrainian forces, but there are fierce battles and our troops are held up at the approaches,” Ganchev said.
“Now that Russian reserves have been brought there, our troops are fighting back,” he added.
New bombing of a nuclear power plant
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meanwhile warned of “dramatic” developments at Russia’s nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, southern Ukraine, where recent fighting has ” jeopardize the safe operation” of the installation.
IAEA Secretary General Rafael Grossi warned that further shelling near the plant had caused a power outage in the nearby town of Energodar.
This jeopardized the smooth running of the plant, he said.
“It’s totally unacceptable. It can’t last,” he said, insisting on “an immediate halt to all shelling throughout the area.”
Petro Kotin, the head of Ukraine’s nuclear energy agency, told AFP that Russian forces tortured staff at the nuclear power plant and at least two people were killed.
“Two people were beaten to death. We don’t know where about ten people are now, they were taken away (by the Russians) and after that we have no information about their fate,” he said. he declares.
In the recently recaptured village of Grakove, where Ukrainian officials exhumed two bodies on Friday, resident Sergiy Lutsay spoke to reporters about what he saw.
Russian soldiers forced him to bury the bodies at gunpoint soon after the war began, he said.
“They came to my house, I was with my 70-year-old father,” he told reporters. “I was afraid they would threaten him.”
“They told me to come and dig a hole.”
He did not confirm a police statement that at least one of the two men killed had had his ears cut off.
“Enormous costs” for Russia: Blinken
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia’s efforts to strengthen Kharkiv showed Moscow was paying “enormous costs” in its attempt to capture and then retain Ukrainian territory.
“There are a lot of Russian forces that are in Ukraine and unfortunately, tragically, horribly, President (Vladimir) Putin has demonstrated that he’s going to throw a lot of people in there at huge cost to Russia,” he said. he declared.
He was speaking during a visit to Brussels on Friday for talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
The day before, he had made a surprise visit to Kyiv during which he unveiled an additional $2.8 billion in military aid and hailed Ukraine’s “clear and real” gains on the front line.
Late Thursday, Zelensky shared footage showing Ukrainian soldiers in camouflage gear holding his country’s blue and yellow flag above Balakliya.
The city, which had been under Russian control for about six months and had a pre-war population of around 30,000, fell early to Russian forces who invaded in February.
Now Russian officials in the Kharkiv region say they are evacuating civilians to Russia “until the situation stabilizes”.
On the Ukrainian side, however, Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov warned people not to return to newly recaptured areas during “clearing and demining”.
In the area around the city of Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces penetrated 50 kilometers (30 miles) beyond Russian lines and recaptured more than 20 towns and villages, military officials said.