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Russian snipers halt evacuation of civilians in Ukraine’s border towns

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Published Time: 13.05.2024 - 22:40:24 Modified Time: 13.05.2024 - 22:40:24

Kyiv admits Kremlin offensive is ‘achieving tactical success’ with its cross-border assaults as Ukrainians become trapped behind enemy lines Simon Townsley During two years as a military policeman in Ukraine’s war, Vlad Yefarov has long wondered whether there might one day be a bullet with his name on it

Kyiv admits Kremlin offensive is ‘achieving tactical success’ with its cross-border assaults as Ukrainians become trapped behind enemy lines

: Simon Townsley

During two years as a military policeman in Ukraine’s war, Vlad Yefarov has long wondered whether there might one day be a bullet with his name on it.

On Sunday, while trying to save a pensioner trapped from the north-east border town of Vovchansk, he faced not one such bullet, but half a dozen.

“We were driving past the old shoemaker’s factory when a Russian sniper’s bullet hit the windscreen right in front of me,” he said, pointing to the cracked glass above the steering wheel on his Toyota pick-up.

“We tried to turn around, but as we did so, a Russian machine-gunner opened fire on us, and the sniper put another round in my driver’s side window.”

That Mr Yefarov, 27, is still around to tell the tale is thanks to the fact that last year, foreign donors gave his police force a fleet of armoured Toyotas to replace their standard-issue ones. The two sniper rounds that would otherwise have taken his head off were stopped by bullet-proof glass, while the four machine-gun rounds that punctured the Toyota either side were halted by the steel plating under the bodywork.

“If we’d been in a soft-skinned car, I’d have been killed straight away,” he said, as he stood by the bullet-ridden vehicle in the town of Buhaivka, 10 miles south. “Plus my three comrades who were in the back would be dead too.”

: Simon Townsley

Mr Yefarov’s escape was one of the few upbeat stories to be heard in this corner of north-east Ukraine on Sunday, as Russian forces expanded their cross-border assault that began on Friday.

As of Sunday night, more than 30 towns and villages along the north-east border were under attack, according to Kyiv officials, who admitted that the Kremlin offensive was “achieving tactical success”.

Ukrainian troops were in clashes along a 35-mile stretch of countryside, with the nearest Russian troops attempting to capture Lyptsi, just 10 miles north of Kharkiv, the regional capital. A firm foothold in Lyptsi could potentially put Kharkiv back in artillery range for the first time since Russian forces were routed from the north-east in autumn 2022.

Mr Yefarov’s rescue mission into Vovchansk on Sunday afternoon was part of an ongoing evacuation programme that has already seen more than 6,000 civilians moved from the border region. However, with Russian troops now entering the outskirts of Vovchansk and taking up positions in houses and buildings, some Ukrainian civilians who were hoping for evacuation now appear to be trapped behind enemy lines.

“The sniper and machine gunner who shot at us were in the second floor of the shoemaker’s factory,” Mr Yefarov added. “That meant we had to abandon the rescue mission altogether.”

: Simon Townsley

Tamaz Hambarashvili, the head of the Vovchansk military administration, told The Telegraph that another 200 people had been evacuated from Vovchansk and surrounding villages on Sunday, but that there was now house-to-house fighting in the town.

“We are managing to keep our positions, and the town remains under our control,” he insisted.

He denied claims by Ukrainian soldiers on Sunday that the border area had been left undefended, allowing Russian troops to “walk in”.

“These rumours aren’t true, we do have fortifications there – just not on a massive scale,” he said. “They’re right on the border, so we can’t build very much because every time we do so we come under Russian fire.”

“Yuri”, a police colleague of Mr Yefarov, added: “We do have defences on the border. I’ve seen landmines and dragons’ teeth (anti-tank traps) there. The problem is that we just have the wrong kind of neighbour.”

Russia’s defence ministry said on Sunday that its troops had “improved the tactical position and dealt a blow to Ukrainian manpower” around the border.

While some believe the assault may simply be a feint to force Ukraine to redeploy troops from the Donbas region further south, the Kremlin appears to be deploying considerable firepower.

In Lyptsi, officials reported Russian jets, drones, and so-called KABs, or glide-bombs, which can carry up to half a ton of explosive. Dropped from a plane at height and then guided by GPS for several miles onto their target, they deliver a cruise missile-sized payload at a fraction of the cost.

: Simon Townsley

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