Russian-installed authorities urge evacuation of Kherson ahead of expected Ukrainian advance
Widespread power outages across Ukraine as Russia launches 'massive' attack
Russian-installed authorities told all residents of the city of Kherson to leave "immediately" on Saturday ahead of an expected advance by Ukrainian troops waging a counteroffensive to recapture 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 strongly urged civilians to use boat crossings over a major river to move deeper into Russian-held territory, citing a tense situation on the front and the threat of shelling and alleged "terror attacks" by Kyiv.
Kherson has been in Russian hands since the early days of the nearly eight-month-long war in Ukraine, which began on Feb. 24. The city is the capital of a region of the same name, one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and then put under Russian martial law.
On Friday, Ukrainian forces bombarded Russian positions across the province, targeting pro-Kremlin forces' resupply routes across the Dnipro River and preparing for a final push to reclaim the city.
The Ukrainian military has reclaimed broad areas in the north of the region since launching a counteroffensive in late August. It reported new successes Saturday, saying that Russian troops were forced to retreat from the villages of Charivne and Chkalove in the Beryslav district.
Russian-installed officials were reported desperately trying to turn the city of Kherson — a prime objective for both sides because of its key industries and major river and sea port — into a fortress while attempting to relocate tens of thousands of residents.
The Kremlin poured as many as 2,000 draftees into the surrounding region to replenish losses and strengthen front-line units, according to the Ukrainian army's general staff.
Crossing over major river
The wide Dnipro River figures as a major factor in the fighting, making it hard for Russia to supply its troops defending the city of Kherson and nearby areas on the west bank after relentless Ukrainian strikes rendered the main crossings unusable.
Taking control of Kherson has allowed Russia to resume fresh water supplies from the Dnipro to Crimea, which were cut by Ukraine after Moscow's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. A big hydroelectric power plant upstream from Kherson city is a key source of energy for the southern region. Ukraine and Russia accused each other of trying to blow it up to flood the mostly flat region.
Kherson's Kremlin-backed authorities previously announced plans to evacuate all Russian-appointed officials and as many as 60,000 civilians across the river, in what local leader Volodymyr Saldo said would be an "organized, gradual displacement."
Another Russian-installed official on Saturday estimated that about 25,000 people from across the region had made their way over the Dnipro. In a Telegram post, Kirill Stremousov claimed that civilians were relocating willingly.
"People are actively moving because, today, the priority is life. We do not drag anyone anywhere," he said, in an apparent response to Ukrainian and Western concerns about potential forced transfers by Moscow.
Ukrainian and Western officials have expressed concern about potential forced transfers of residents to Russia or Russian-occupied territory.
Ukrainian officials have urged residents to resist attempts to relocate them, with one local official alleging that Moscow wanted to take civilians hostage and use them as human shields.
Key infrastructure under attack
Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of people in central and western Ukraine woke up on Saturday to power outages and periodic bursts of gunfire. In its latest war tactic, Russia has intensified strikes on power stations, water supply systems and other key infrastructure across the country.
Ukraine's air force said in a statement on Saturday that Russia had launched "a massive missile attack" targeting "critical infrastructure," adding that it had downed 18 of 33 cruise missiles launched from the air and sea.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later said that Russian launched 36 missiles, most of which were shot down.
"Those treacherous blows on critically important facilities are characteristic tactics of terrorists," Zelenskyy said. "The world can and must stop this terror."
Air raid sirens blared across Ukraine twice by early afternoon, sending residents scurrying into shelters as Ukrainian air defence tried to shoot down explosive drones and incoming missiles.
"Several rockets" targeting the capital were shot down on Saturday morning, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on the Telegram messaging service.
The presidential office said in its morning statement that five explosive-laden drones were downed in the central Cherkasy region southeast of Kyiv.
The governors of six western and central provinces, as well as of the southern Odesa region on the Black Sea, gave similar reports.
Ukraine's top diplomat said on Saturday that the day's attacks were proof that Ukraine needed new Western-reinforced air defence systems "without a minute of delay."
"Air defence saves lives," Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of Ukraine's presidential office, said on Telegram on Saturday that almost 1.4 million households lost power as a result of the strikes. He said some 672,000 homes in the western Khmelnytskyi region were affected, while a further 242,000 suffered outages in the central Cherkasy province.
Water supply fears
Most of the western city of Khmelnytskyi, which straddles the Bug River and was home to some 275,000 people before the war, was left with no electricity, shortly after local media reported several loud explosions.
In a social media post on Saturday, the city council urged local residents to store water, "in case it's also gone within an hour.
The mayor of Lutsk, a city of 215,000 in Ukraine's far west, made a similar appeal, saying that power in the city was partially knocked out after Russian missiles slammed into local energy facilities and damaged one power plant beyond repair.
The central city of Uman, a key pilgrimage centre for Hasidic Jews that counted some 100,000 residents before the war, was also plunged into darkness after a rocket hit a nearby power station.
Ukraine's state energy company, Ukrenergo, responded to the strikes by announcing that rolling blackouts would be imposed in Kyiv and 10 Ukrainian regions in order to stabilize the situation.
In a Facebook post on Saturday, the company accused Russia of attacking "energy facilities within the principal networks of the western regions of Ukraine." It claimed that the scale of destruction has been comparable to the fallout earlier this month from Moscow's first co-ordinated attack on the Ukrainian energy grid.
Both Ukrenergo and officials in Kyiv have been urging Ukrainians to conserve energy. Earlier this week, Zelenskyy called on consumers to curb their power use between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. daily, and avoid using energy-guzzling appliances such as electric heaters.
Zelenskyy said earlier in the week that 30 per cent of Ukraine's power stations have been destroyed since Russia launched the first wave of targeted strikes on Oct. 10.
Russia says 2 killed in border town
In a separate development, Russian officials said a shelling attack on a frontier town just kilometres north of the Ukrainian border killed two people and wounded 12.
Andrey Ikonnikov, the health minister for the southern Belgorod region of Russia, said a 14-year-old boy and an older man died on the spot after shells hit civilian infrastructure in Shebekino, which is home to about 44,500 people.
Earlier social media posts by the regional governor, Vladislav Gladkov, blamed the attack on Ukraine. Russia has previously accused Ukrainian forces of numerous strikes on civilians in the border regions of Belgorod and Kursk. Kyiv has not formally responded to these accusations.