Russia Has Pulled Back Forces From River Towns Opposite Kherson City Ukraine Says

Ukraine’s military on Thursday said Russia had pulled some troops from towns on the opposite bank of the Dnipro River from Kherson city, the first official Ukrainian report of a Russian withdrawal on what is now the main front line in the south.

The statement gave only limited details and made no mention of any Ukrainian forces having crossed the Dnipro. Since Russia abandoned Kherson, nine months into its invasion of Ukraine, the river now forms the entire southern stretch of the front.

Russia has already told civilians to leave towns within 15 km of the river and withdrawn its civilian administration from the city of Nova Kakhovka on the bank.

“A decrease in the number of Russian soldiers and military equipment is observed in the settlement of Oleshky,” the military said, referring to the town opposite Kherson city, on the far side of a destroyed bridge over the Dnipro. Troops were withdrawn from certain settlements of the Kherson oblast and “dispersed in forest strips”, it added.

Reuters could not independently confirm the report.

Russian rockets continued to pound neighbourhoods in Kherson, however, knocking out power in the city where electricity had only begun to be restored nearly three weeks after Russian troops vacated the city and fled across the river.

A number of residents were taken to hospital with injuries from the shelling on Thursday, while soldiers patrolled and inspected damage to residential buildings.

The war has entered a relentless new phase with the onset of the first winter since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

After pulling back in the south in November, Moscow has focused its firepower on a section of the front line in the east near the city of Bakhmut, where hundreds of soldiers are thought to be dying each day in fighting in cold and muddy trenches, yielding scant reported gains of territory on either side.

Ukraine’s armed forces reported heavy shelling of a number of frontline villages in the area.

Air raid sirens wailed across Ukraine on Thursday afternoon and residents took to shelters fearing the next wave of near weekly massive missile and drone attacks by Russian forces. But there were no reports of major missile strikes and the warnings were lifted.

Since early October, Russia has used the strikes to knock out power supply, water and heat in Ukrainian cities, which Kyiv and the West say are intended to harm civilians, a war crime.

The last huge volley of strikes last week knocked out heat and power for millions, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned Ukrainians to expect another wave soon.

Kyiv mayor Vitaliy Klitschko on Thursday told residents to stock up on water, food and warm clothes in the event of a total blackout and advised people to consider staying with friends in the outskirts if they could.

Ukraine’s military said recent volleys had included dud Russian missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, fired with no payload apparently to distract Ukrainian air defences.

The attacks on infrastructure have increased the cost to keep Ukraine’s economy going next year by up to $1 billion a month, the head of the International Monetary Fund told the Reuters NEXT conference on Thursday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the strikes on Thursday, saying Moscow was targeting Ukraine’s civil infrastructure to prevent Kyiv from importing Western arms. He did not explain how such attacks could achieve that aim.

Ukraine tightened security at its diplomatic missions around the world on Thursday after a mail bomb exploded at its embassy in Madrid, one of several devices sent to targets in Spain, including to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and the U.S. embassy.

Ambassador Serhii Pohoreltsev told the Ukrainian news site European Pravda that the suspicious package addressed to him had been opened outside the building by the embassy’s Ukrainian commandant, who was injured in the blast.

In a bid to cut resources available for Moscow’s war effort, the European Union tentatively agreed on Thursday on a

$60 a barrel price cap on Russian seaborne oil, an EU diplomat said. The measure would need to be approved by all EU governments in a written procedure by Friday.

There are no political talks under way to end the war, which Russia launched as a “special military operation” claiming its aim was to disarm its neighbour and root out leaders it characterizes as dangerous nationalists. Kyiv and the West call it an imperialist land grab, which has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides.

In a sign some channels of communication remain open, Russia’s Defence Ministry and the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration said the two countries had swapped 50 service personnel on Thursday.

“The defenders of Mariupol and Azovstal have returned,” Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app, referring to the sites of some of the war’s most intense fighting. (Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Stephen Coates, Peter Graff and Conor Humphries; editing by Mark Heinrich and Nick Macfie)