Russian-installed authorities in occupied Kherson have urged residents to leave “immediately” as they expect Ukrainian troops to wage a counteroffensive campaign to reclaim the city in southern Ukraine.
The regional administration posted a message on the Telegram app on Saturday demanding civilians leave Kherson city, citing a tense situation on the front and the threat of shelling and alleged plans for “terror attacks” by Ukrainian forces.
They urged civilians to use boat crossings over a river to move deeper into Russian-held territory.
Russia captured the regional capital city of Kherson in the early days of the war and occupied other parts of the region in the months following. Kherson is one of four regions President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month. On Thursday, he announced martial law in the regions amid a continuing counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.
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 Vladimir Saldo said would be an “organised, gradual displacement.”
An estimated 25,000 people from the region had made their way across the river, according to another Russian-installed official, Kirill Stremousov, who said civilians were relocating willingly.
“People are actively moving because today the priority is life. We do not drag anyone anywhere,” he said in his Telegram post, adding that some residents could be waiting for the Ukrainian army to reclaim the city.
However, Ukrainian and Western officials have expressed concern about potential forced transfers of residents to Russia or Russian-occupied territory. Kyiv urged Kherson residents to resist attempts to relocate them, with one local official alleging Moscow wanted to take civilians hostage and use them as human shields.
Attacks on ‘critical infrastructure’
On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in central and western parts of the country had power outrages amid Russia’s intensified strikes on power stations, water supply systems and other key infrastructure.
Ukraine’s air force said Russia had launched “a massive missile attack” targeting “critical infrastructure”, hours after air raid sirens blared across the country. It said it had downed 18 out of 33 cruise missiles launched from air and sea.
Mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, said “several rockets” that were aimed at the capital were shot down on Saturday morning. Other governors of six western and central provinces as well as the southern Odesa region reported similar attacks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later said Russia had 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.”
Due to recent attacks on infrastructure, grid operator Ukrenergo and Ukrainian officials urged citizens to curb power usage nationwide for the first time.
Zelenskyy said earlier in the week that 30 percent of Ukraine’s power stations have been destroyed since Russia launched the first wave of targeted infrastructure strikes on October 10.
Almost 1.4 million households lost power due to the attacks, according to the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office Kyrylo Tymoshenko. He added that some 672,000 homes in the western Khmelnytskyi region were affected and another 242,000 suffered outages in the Cherkasy region.
Most of the western city of Khmelnytskyi, which straddles the Bug River and had a pre-war population of 275,000, was left with no electricity shortly after local media reported several loud explosions.
In a social media post, the city council urged residents to store water “in case it’s also gone within an hour”.
The mayor of Lutsk, a city of 215,000 in far western Ukraine, made a similar appeal, saying 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 with about 100,000 residents before the war, was also plunged into darkness after a rocket hit a nearby power plant.
On Friday, Ukrainian forces bombarded Russian positions across the Kherson region, aiming at pro-Kremlin forces’ resupply routes across the Dnieper River and preparing for a final push to reclaim the city of Kherson.
The counteroffensive has reclaimed broad areas in the north of the region since late August. The Ukrainian military reported that Russian troops were forced to retreat from the villages of Charivne and Chkalove in the Beryslav district.
Meanwhile, Russian officials said two civilians were killed and 12 others wounded following strikes on Russia’s southern Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine on Saturday.
“There are two dead among civilians,” regional Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on social media following shelling on “civilian infrastructure” in the town of Shebekino, where nearly 15,000 people were left without electricity.
Al Jazeera and news agencies