Ukraine has ceded control of the key eastern city of Severodonetsk to the Russians after weeks of intense fighting. The victory in the strategic Donbas region is a milestone for Russia even as its armies are advancing on other cities in the east of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukraine reported that it came under intense attack from Belarus, confirming long-running fears that Minsk would join forces with Moscow and widen the war. On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin also said he would send nuclear-capable missiles to Belarus within months.
'Russia Fully Occupies City'
The mayor of Severodonetsk said the Russian army has "fully occupied" the city. "The city has been fully occupied by the Russians," mayor Oleksandr Striuk said on Saturday, according to Agence France-Presse.
Military strategists said the capture of Severodonetsk, which is an industrial hub, will help Russia gain full control over the east of the country. Russia-backed Donbas separatists said minor fights are still taking place in the city. Taking control of Donbas, which is a mainly Russian speaking region, has been a key target of the Russian military operation in Ukraine that started four months ago.
"Street fighting is currently taking place," said Andrei Marochko, a representative of the separatists, according to AFP. The separatists also said Russia has taken control of the Azot chemical factory where hundreds of people had taken shelter. The mayor added that massive civilian evacuation is taking place.
Belarus Attacks Ukraine
In more alarming signs that the war could become wider, Ukraine said it came under intense fire from the Belarus side, adding that Putin is pressuring President Alexander Lukashenko to fight on the Russian side.
"Today's strike is directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine," the Ukrainian intelligence service said, AFP reported. The Ukrainians said as many as 20 rockets were fired from the territory of Belarus and from the air. The rockets targeted the village of Desna in the northern Chernigiv region.
Putin, meanwhile, told Lukashenko that Russia will send nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to Belarus.