Civilians Flee Embattled Town as Ukrainian Pullout Looms

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
Tetiana Hurieieva, the mother of Volodymyr Hurieiev, a Ukrainian soldier killed in the Bakhmut area, receives the flag that draped his coffin, during the funeral in Boryspil, Ukraine, Saturday, March 4, 2023.

KHROMOVE, Ukraine (AP) — Pressure from Russian forces mounted Saturday on Ukrainians hunkered down in Bakhmut, as residents attempted to flee with help from troops who Western analysts say may be preparing to withdraw from the key eastern stronghold.

A woman was killed and two men were badly wounded by shelling while trying to cross a makeshift bridge out of the city in Donetsk province, according to Ukrainian troops who were assisting them.

A Ukrainian army representative who asked not to be named for operational reasons told The Associated Press that it was now too dangerous for civilians to leave Bakhmut by vehicle and that people had to flee on foot instead.

Bakhmut has for months been a prime target of Moscow’s grinding eastern offensive in the war, with Russian troops, including forces from the private Wagner Group, inching ever closer.

An AP team near Bakhmut on Saturday saw a pontoon bridge set up by Ukrainian soldiers to help the few remaining residents reach the nearby village of Khromove. Later they saw at least five houses on fire as a result of attacks in Khromove.

Ukrainian units over the past 36 hours destroyed two key bridges just outside Bakhmut, including one linking it to the nearby town of Chasiv Yar along the last remaining Ukrainian resupply route, according to U.K. military intelligence officials and other Western analysts.

The U.K. defense ministry said in the latest of its regular Twitter updates that the destruction of the bridges came as Russian fighters made further inroads into Bakhmut’s northern suburbs.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, assessed late on Friday that Kyiv’s actions may point to a looming pullout from parts of the city. It said Ukrainian troops may “conduct a limited and controlled withdrawal from particularly difficult sections of eastern Bakhmut,” while seeking to inhibit Russian movement there and limit exit routes to the west.

Capturing Bakhmut would not only give Russian fighters a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but it might rupture Ukraine’s supply lines and allow the Kremlin’s forces to press toward other Ukrainian strongholds in the Donetsk region.

Civilians spoke about daily struggles as the fighting raged on nearly nonstop, reducing much of Bakhmut to rubble. Husband and wife Hennadiy Mazepa and Natalia Ishkova, who chose to remain in the city, said they lack food and basic utilities.

“Humanitarian (aid) is given to us only once a month. There is no electricity, no water, no gas,” Ishkova told AP on Saturday.

“I pray to God that all who remain here will survive,” she added.

At the United Nations on Friday, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said U.N. humanitarian staff reported “intensive hostilities” near Bakhmut and the few humanitarian partners on the ground were focusing on evacuating the most vulnerable.

Also Saturday, Russia’s defense chief traveled to eastern Ukraine to inspect troops and award them with state decorations, the Defense Ministry said.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited a command post where he was briefed by regional commander Rustam Muradov, according to a video published by the ministry. It did not disclose the command post’s location.

Elsewhere, Ukraine’s emergency services reported in the morning that the death toll from a Russian missile strike that hit a five-story apartment building in southern Ukraine on Thursday rose to 11.

Emergency services said in an online statement that rescuers pulled three more bodies from the wreckage overnight, some 36 hours after a Russian missile tore through four floors of the building in the riverside city of Zaporizhzhia. A child was among those reported killed, and the rescue effort was ongoing.

Russian shelling on Saturday also killed two residents of front-line communities in the surrounding Zaporizhzhia region, the local military administration reported.

A 57-year-old woman and a 68-year-old man also died in Nikopol, a town farther west near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, as Russian forces fired artillery shells and rockets at Ukrainian-held territory across the Dnieper river, regional Gov. Serhiy Lysak reported.

In the western city of Lviv, hundreds of kilometers from the front lines, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met Saturday with the head of the European Union parliament. Hours earlier, Zelenskyy held talks with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and top European legal officials on how to hold Russia accountable for its actions in Ukraine.

In a joint press briefing with Zelenskyy, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said that “all those responsible” for suspected Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, must be brought to justice before a durable peace is achieved.

Metsola voiced support for the EU’s announcement Thursday that an international center for the prosecution of the crime of aggression — the act of invading another country — would be set up in The Hague.

She also called for Ukraine to start negotiations on joining the 27-nation bloc as early as this year and urged Western nations to keep arming Kyiv as it battles Russian forces in the east and south.

The EU agreed in June to put Ukraine on a path toward membership, setting in motion a process that could take years or even decades. However, Moscow’s invasion and Ukraine’s request for fast-track consideration have lent urgency to the negotiations.

“Ukraine’s future is in the European Union. We will walk all the way with you,” Metsola said on Twitter late Friday.