Communication with the city was “complicated” with the situation on the ground changing every hour, the head of Severodonetsk’s administration, Oleksandr Stryuk, told Ukrainian television.

Around 500 civilians were taking shelter under “heavy fire” in the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk, Stryuk said.

The Russian defence ministry said it was “ready to organise a humanitarian operation” on Wednesday to evacuate from the plant to the separatist-controlled part of the Lugansk region.

‘Surrender or die’

Regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said Monday Ukraine’s forces had been pushed back from Severodonetsk’s centre with the Russians controlling 70 to 80 percent of the city in their attempt to “encircle it”.

Capturing Severodonetsk would open the road to Sloviansk and another major city, Kramatorsk, in Moscow’s push to conquer Donbas, a mainly Russian-speaking region partly held by pro-Kremlin separatists since 2014.

Zelensky, in comments to Danish journalists Tuesday, insisted that the war could only end once Ukrainians were the only ones left on its territory.

How long that took depended “very much” on international support, and “the personalities of the leaders of European states”.

He regretted what he called, “the restrained behaviour of some leaders” which, he said, had “slowed down arms supplies very much”.

Zelensky has repeatedly urged the West to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine as quickly as possible.

Deputy Defence Minister Anna Malyar on Tuesday said Kyiv had only received 10 per cent of the arms it had requested from the West.

‘Not safe anywhere’

From an elevated position in Lysychansk, an AFP team saw black smoke rising from the Azot factory in Severodonetsk and another area in the city.

The Ukrainian military is using the high ground to exchange fire with Russian forces fighting for control of Severodonetsk, just across the water.

Lysychansk pensioner Valentina sat on the porch of her ground floor apartment, where she lives alone, her two walking sticks to hand.

“I’m having a tough time,” said the 83-year-old former farm worker.

“It’s scary, very scary. Why can’t they agree at last, for God’s sake, just shake hands?”

Along the road from Lysychansk to Kramatorsk, Ukrainian forces were transporting more weapons systems to the front, while specialist vehicles carried tanks for repair.

In the town of Novodruzhesk, close to Lysychansk, there was still a smell of burning and smoke from a group of houses that had been destroyed by fire from shelling at the weekend, with just chimneys left.

“It’s not safe anywhere, it just depends on the time of day, that’s all,” said a soldier standing at the local fire station with a skull logo on his sleeve.

“There are tons of people (still) here,” he added.

Further away in Sloviansk, Nataliya, 41, a now unemployed cleaner said she was trying to decide whether to evacuate.

“People will leave again if they start bombing the town heavily,” she told AFP.

“If it’s like Mariupol, they’ll give us buses. We’ll leave if the Russians enter Sloviansk.”

‘Positive signal’

The European Union needs to “give a positive signal” to Ukraine and be “open” to granting it candidate status, France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, said Tuesday.

Ukraine has applied to become a member of the bloc, with the European Commission due to give its recommendation in the coming days. But some member states are sceptical about potentially fast-tracking Ukraine’s accession.

The process would “take time”, Beaune said, adding that the first priority was to “stop the war”.

“Ukraine is fighting and defending our shared European values, it must at least be a candidate for EU,” President Zelensky said Tuesday.

Russian energy giant Gazprom said Tuesday it would reduce gas deliveries to the EU via the Nord Stream pipeline by 40 percent, due to the delayed return of compressor units from German company Siemens.

Several European countries, including Germany, where the underwater pipeline makes land, are highly reliant on supplies of Russian gas for their energy needs.

The Kremlin meanwhile said it had not received a request from London to intervene in the case of two Britons sentenced to death by pro-Moscow separatist authorities in eastern Ukraine.

Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, along with Moroccan Brahim Saadun, were convicted of acting as mercenaries for Ukraine by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

Russia also announced it was blacklisting 49 UK citizens, including defence officials and prominent journalists from the BBC, The Financial Times and The Guardian.

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