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Russian-laden officials ordered the evacuation of Kherson

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Officials in Russia ordered all residents of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson to leave the country “immediately” on Saturday ahead of the expected advance of Ukrainian troops. He is conducting a counteroffensive to retake one of the first urban areas Russia took after invading the country.

In a post on the Telegram messaging service, the pro-Kremlin regional administration urged civilians to dig deeper into Russian-held territory using boat crossings over a major river, citing the tense situation at the front and the threat of bombardment and “terror attacks by Kyiv”.

Kherson has been in Russian hands since the first days of the occupation in February. The city is the capital of a region of the same name, one of four regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and subsequently subjected to Russian martial law.

On Friday, Ukrainian forces bombarded Russian positions across the province and approached a full-blown attack on the capital as it targeted pro-Kremlin forces’ supply routes along the Dnieper River.

Russian-appointed officials are reportedly trying desperately to turn the city of Kherson, a primary target for both sides due to its key industries and large river and sea port, into a stronghold as they attempt to relocate tens of thousands of residents.

According to the general staff of the Ukrainian army, the Kremlin sent up to 2,000 troops to the surrounding area to replenish losses and strengthen the frontline troops.

The Dnieper River occupies an important place in territorial warfare because it serves critical functions – crossings for supplies, troops and civilians; drinking water for southern Ukraine and the annexed Crimean Peninsula; and electricity generation from a hydroelectric station. Most of the area is under Russian control, including the power plant and a canal that supplies water to Crimea.

Kherson’s Kremlin-backed officials had previously announced plans to evacuate all Russian-appointed officials and some 60,000 civilians across the river, as local leader Volodymyr Saldo said.

Another official, installed by the Russian on Saturday, estimated that around 25,000 people from all over the region crossed the Dnieper. In a Telegram post, Kirill Stremousov claimed that civilians were willingly relocated.

“People are actively moving because life is the priority today. We are not deporting anyone anywhere,” he said, giving a clear response to Ukraine and the West’s concerns about possible forced transfers by Moscow.

Ukrainian authorities have urged local residents to resist attempts by a local official to relocate them, alleging that Moscow wants to take civilians hostage and use them as human shields.

Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of people in central and western Ukraine woke up Saturday to power outages and periodic gunfires, as Ukraine’s air defenses attempted to shoot down drones and incoming missiles.

As Russia approaches eight months, it has intensified its strikes against power plants, water supply systems and other important infrastructures across the country, the final phase of the war.

The Ukrainian Air Force said on Saturday that Russia had launched a “major missile strike” targeting “critical infrastructure”, shooting down 18 of 33 air- and sea-launched cruise missiles.

In the early afternoon, air raid sirens sounded twice across Ukraine and residents rushed to the bunkers.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told the Telegram messaging service that “several rockets” targeting the capital were hit on Saturday morning.

Similar reports were made by the governors of the six western and central provinces, as well as the southern Odessa region on the Black Sea.

The presidential office said in the morning that five explosive-laden drones were shot down in the Cherkasy region southeast of Kiev.

Ukraine’s top diplomat said on Saturday that the attacks on that day were proof that Ukraine needed new Western-backed air defense systems “without a minute’s delay”.

“Air defense saves lives,” wrote Dmytro Kuleba on Twitter.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, vice-president of the Ukrainian presidential office, said on Telegram on Saturday that about 1.4 million households lost electricity as a result of the strikes. He said about 672,000 homes were affected in the western Khmelnytskyi region, while another 242,000 homes were disrupted in the central Cherkasy province.

Much of the western city of Khmelnytskyi, located on the Bug river and home to some 275,000 people before the war, was without power shortly after several loud explosions were reported in the local press.

The city council urged local residents to store water “if it runs out in an hour” in a social media post on Saturday.

The mayor of Lutsk, a population of 215,000 in Ukraine’s far west, made a similar call on Telegram on Saturday. Ihor Polishchuk said power in Lutsk was partially cut after Russian missiles hit local energy facilities. He later added that a civilian suffered burns and a power plant was damaged beyond repair when a shock wave from the strike hit his home.

The central city of Uman, which was a major pilgrimage center for Hasidic Jews before the war, which had about 100,000 residents before the war, was also plunged into darkness after a rocket hit a nearby power station, regional officials said on Telegram.

Ukraine’s state energy company responded to the strikes by announcing permanent power cuts in Kyiv and 10 Ukrainian regions to stabilize the situation.

In a Facebook post on Saturday, Ukrenergo accused Russia of attacking “energy facilities in the main grids in the western regions of Ukraine”. He claimed the scale of the devastation was comparable to the fallout from Moscow’s first coordinated attack on the Ukrainian power grid on October 10-12.

Authorities in both Ukrenergo and Kiev urge Ukrainians to save energy. Earlier this week, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged consumers to restrict their power use between 7:00 am and 11:00 am daily and to avoid using energy-consuming devices such as electric heaters.

In the past two weeks, Moscow has stepped up its attacks on key civilian infrastructure across Ukraine. About 40% of the country’s electrical power system was severely damaged, officials said. Zelenskyy said earlier in the week that 30% of Ukraine’s power plants have been destroyed since Russia launched the first wave of targeted attacks on October 10.

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Kozlowska reported from London.

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