Ukraine troops set to withdraw from bitterly contested city of Severodonetsk

After weeks of ferocious fighting, Ukrainian forces will retreat from the besieged city of Severodonetsk in the country's east to avoid encirclement, a regional governor said Friday.

Severodonetsk, in Luhansk, has faced relentless Russian bombardment, with many trapped at plant

Ukrainian soldiers concede the city of Severodonetsk to Russia, and a former prisoner of war talks about his experience being captured during the siege of Mariupol.

After weeks of ferocious fighting, Ukrainian forces will retreat from a besieged city in the country's east to avoid encirclement, a regional governor said Friday.

The city of Severodonetsk, the administrative centre of the Luhansk region, has faced relentless Russian bombardment. Ukrainian troops fought the Russians in house-to-house battles before retreating to a huge chemical factory on the city's edge, where they holed up in its sprawling underground structures.

In recent days, Russian forces have made gains around Severodonetsk and the neighbouring city of Lysychansk, on a steep bank across the river, in a bid to encircle Ukrainian forces.

Some Ukrainian forces remained holed up with about 500 civilians at the Azot chemical plant, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.

WATCH | What happened in Week 18 of Russia's attack on Ukraine:

Ukrainian forces appear set to retreat from Severodonetsk, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warns once again that Russia's war in Ukraine could drag on for ‘years.’ Here’s a recap of the war in Ukraine from June 18 to June 24.

Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said that the Ukrainian troops have been given the order to leave Severodonetsk to prevent further casualties.

"We will have to pull back our guys," he said. "It makes no sense to stay at the destroyed positions, because the number of casualties in poorly fortified areas will grow every day."

Haidai said the Ukrainian forces have "received the order to retreat to new positions and continue fighting there" but didn't give further details.

He said the Russians were also advancing toward Lysychansk from Zolote and Toshkivka, adding that Russian reconnaissance units conducted forays on the city edges but were driven out by its defenders.

The governor added that a bridge on a highway leading to Lysychansk was badly damaged in a Russian airstrike and became unusable for trucks. The claim couldn't be independently verified.

Russia commands much of 2 provinces

The Russian Defence Ministry declared Friday that four Ukrainian battalions and a unit of "foreign mercenaries" totalling about 2,000 soldiers have been "fully blocked" near Hirske and Zolote, south of Lysychansk.

Following a botched attempt to capture Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, in the early stage of the invasion that started Feb. 24, Russian forces have shifted focus to the Donbas region, where the Ukrainian forces have fought Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

WATCH l Ukraine ambassador talks to CBC News about military aid, 'historical' EU nod:
Ukraine's Ambassador to Canada Yulia Kovaliv says Ukraine's request for Canadian light armoured vehicles is "under consideration" but stressed that time is of the essence. "Each day of delay unfortunately costs the lives of our soldiers"

The Russian military controls about 95 per cent of Luhansk province and about half of neighbouring Donetsk province, the two areas that make up the Donbas.

After repeated requests to its Western allies for heavier weaponry to counter Russia's edge in firepower, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said a response had arrived in the form of medium-range American rocket launchers.

In another development, an official with the pro-Moscow administration in the southern city of Kherson that was captured by Russian troops early in the invasion was killed in an explosion Friday.

The pro-Russian regional administration in Kherson said that Dmitry Savlyuchenko died when his vehicle exploded in what it described as a "terror attack."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

WATCH l The nervewracking work of bomb disposal teams:
A Ukrainian emergency crew removed a 500-kilogram unexploded bomb that landed on a residential building in Kharkiv on March 19. Weeks of shelling made it impossible to remove the defused ordnance sooner.

More U.S. military aid on its way

Meeting at a summit in Brussels, leaders of the European Union's 27 nations on Thursday mustered the required unanimous approval to grant Ukraine candidate status. That sets in motion a membership process that could take years or even decades.

European officials have said that Ukraine has already adopted about 70 per cent of the EU rules and standards, but they also have pointed to the need for other far-reaching measures.

WATCH l Ukraine MP says his country is 'ready to fight and to die for European values':
In a political victory for Ukraine and a potential blow to Vladimir Putin, the European Union granted Ukraine candidate status, putting it on a path to join the EU in years to come.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted his gratitude and declared: "Ukraine's future is within the EU."

"It's a victory. We have been waiting for 120 days and 30 years," he said on Instagram, referring to the duration of the war and the decades since Ukraine became independent upon the breakup of the Soviet Union. "And now we will defeat the enemy."

Ukraine applied for membership less than a week after Moscow invaded on Feb. 24.

In 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin objected to Ukraine's plans to sign an association agreement with the EU and pressured the Ukrainian president at the time to pull out at the last minute.

While the European bloc met, U.S. officials announced Thursday that they would send an additional $450 million in military aid to Ukraine, including four more of the medium-range rocket systems, ammunition and other supplies

Food crisis 'could be even worse' in 2023: UN chief

Germany on Friday was hosting a summit on global food security. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres told those gathered in Berlin that the war in Ukraine has added to the disruptions caused by climate change, the coronavirus pandemic and inequality to produce an "unprecedented global hunger crisis" already affecting hundreds of millions of people.

"There is a real risk that multiple famines will be declared in 2022," he said in a video message to officials from dozens of rich and developing countries gathered in Berlin. "And 2023 could be even worse."

Guterres noted that harvests across Asia, Africa and the Americas will take a hit as farmers around the world struggle to cope with rising fertilizer and energy prices.

"This year's food access issues could become next year's global food shortage," he said. "No country will be immune to the social and economic repercussions of such a catastrophe."

WATCH l Trudeau wants Russia isolated but many countries receive support from Moscow:
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blamed Russia for the global food crisis and urged fellow Commonwealth leaders to turn away from Moscow. But his calls were met with resistance as several countries met with Russia, China and Brazil instead.

Guterres said UN negotiators were working on a deal that would enable Ukraine to export food, including via the Black Sea, and let Russia bring food and fertilizer to world markets without restrictions.

The Berlin meeting's host, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, said Moscow's claim that Western sanctions imposed over Russia's invasion of Ukraine were to blame for food shortages was "completely untenable."

Russia exported as much wheat in May and June this year as in the same months of 2021, Baerbock said.

Russian finds a home for its wheat in several countries, including many in Africa and the Middle East.

With files from CBC News

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