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By Emmanuel Peuchot with Dana Rysmukhamedova in Astana
Russia agreed Thursday to help residents leave a region it “annexed” in a sign of success for Ukraine’s counter-offensive, as the EU warned Moscow’s army would be “annihilated” if the Kremlin uses nuclear weapons. breaking news
Moscow’s decision to assist people in leaving Kherson came a day after Kyiv said it had retaken five settlements in the southern region.
“The government took the decision to organise assistance for the departure of residents of the (Kherson) region,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said.
The Moscow-appointed head of the area had appealed for intervention.
Vladimir Saldo suggested residents “leave to other regions to protect themselves from missile strikes”.
Those departing would go to Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014, and southern Russian regions.
Kyiv, which announced its counter-offensive in the south in August, said it has already recaptured over 400 square kilometres (155 miles) in the Kherson region in under a week.
Kherson, which lies near Crimea, was the first major Ukrainian city to fall to Russian forces after the February 24 invasion.
- Nuclear threat –
In Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell sent a strong message to the Kremlin after President Vladimir Putin’s veiled threats of resorting to nuclear weapons to stem growing battlefield losses.
“Putin is saying he is not bluffing. Well, he cannot afford bluffing,” Borrell said.
“Any nuclear attack against Ukraine will create an answer, not a nuclear answer, but such a powerful answer from the military side that the Russian Army will be annihilated.”
The NATO alliance has stopped short of threatening to use its nuclear arsenal to respond as non-member Ukraine is not covered by its mutual self-defence clause.
In Kazakhstan, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended Turkey’s booming trade ties with Moscow during an in-person meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a regional summit.
But Erdogan did not deliver an offer to mediate negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv — expected by the Kremlin — and comments between the leaders made no mention of Ukraine, focusing instead on economic ties.
Putin proposed to create a “gas hub” in Turkey as Russia’s supplies to Europe have been disrupted by Ukraine-related sanctions — an idea that France’s presidency said made “no sense”.
NATO member Turkey has sought to retain dialogue with its Western allies as well as Moscow, and has not joined sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile told the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on Thursday that “legal mechanisms” are needed to punish Russian war crimes.
“We must continue our dialogue in order to hold Russia as the aggressor state and each of the Russian murderers and torturers to account for all crimes in this war,” he said via video link.
- Rebels push to Bakhmut –
On the battlefield, Russian-backed separatist forces in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine said they had captured two villages near the industrial city of Bakhmut, posting small gains against Kyiv’s counter-offensive.
The villages lie just south of Bakhmut, a wine-making and salt-mining city that used to be populated by some 70,000 people and which Russian forces have been pummelling for weeks.
The reported gains came after Ukrainian troops had for weeks been clawing back large swathes of territory in the south and east of Ukraine — including Donetsk — controlled by Russian forces for months.
The Ukrainian military in an update said that it had repelled attacks near several frontline villages.
The governor of the Belgorod region also said that Ukrainian shelling hit housing in the southern Russian city and blew up a munitions depot in the border area.
- Boy pulled from rubble –
AFP reporters in Yampil just outside the recently recaptured Ukrainian town of Lyman on Thursday heard heavy exchanges of artillery fire to the southeast.
A Ukrainian soldier returning from the frontline said positions in Torske village were under fire from Russian guns guided by spotter drones.
Also in the south, the town of Mykolaiv was again rocked by Russian bombardments.
The head of the city Oleksandr Sienkevych said on social media a five-storey residential building was hit, with two upper floors destroyed.
“An 11-year-old boy was recovered from under the rubble and another seven people may still be there,” he said, adding a security guard was killed at a sea rescue station.
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