By SUSIE BLANN
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian shelling hit more civilian targets in Ukraine, starting a fire at a town hospital and damaging five apartment buildings, local officials said Tuesday, as Ukrainian authorities reported a Russian troop buildup in eastern areas that Kyiv suspects is preparation for a new offensive around the anniversary of its Moscow’s invasion.
The shelling in the northeastern town of Vovchansk caused multiple fires late Monday, including at its two-story municipal hospital, the regional State Emergency Service said in an online statement.
Emergency crews evacuated eight civilians from the site before putting out the blaze, which caused no casualties, authorities said.
Vovchansk is in the Kharkiv region, which was occupied by Russia after its full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24 and subsequently retaken by Ukraine during a late summer counteroffensive.
The anticipated Russian push may seek to recapture territory Moscow lost in that counteroffensive.
Ukrainian officials say they expect Russian forces to make a new drive in eastern and southern Ukraine, as the Kremlin strives to secure territory it illegally annexed in late September and where it claims its rule is welcomed.
Russian forces are “regrouping” as they attempt to break Ukrainian lines in five areas in the country’s east and northeast, the Ukrainian military reported Tuesday.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Moscow was focusing its efforts near the towns of Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Novopavlivka in the eastern Donetsk province, as well as Kupiansk in Kharkiv province.
In the Donetsk region, Russian forces also kept up their shelling of Vuhledar, a mining town that has become one of Moscow’s key targets, the Ukrainian presidential office said. Five apartment buildings were destroyed in the town, the office said, which had a prewar population of 14,000.
Donetsk province has seen a marked influx of Russian troops in the past few days, according to Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko.
“The transfer of Russian army units goes on day and night. (Russian) shelling intensifies, pressure from the Russians intensifies each day,” Kyrylenko said on Ukrainian television.
Russia is also preparing for a major offensive in Luhansk province, which is directly north of Donetsk, Gov. Serhii Haidai said in televised remarks.
The number of Russian attacks in the province increased “dramatically” on Monday and overnight, he said.
“The occupiers are looking for weak points and have brought a lot of equipment and thousands of troops to the front line,” Haidai said.
A dozen towns and villages in the northeastern Kharkiv region also came under Russian shelling in the past 24 hours, the Ukrainian president’s office said.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concern about an uptick in fighting as spring approaches.
Peace prospects “keep diminishing” and “the chances of further escalation and bloodshed keep growing,” he said in a speech late Monday.
Battlefield setbacks in Ukraine have embarrassed the Kremlin, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is keen to cement public support for the war. Ensuring Kremlin rule in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which together make up the industrial Donbas region bordering Russia, is expected to be a key objective.
Some military analysts were skeptical, however, of Russia’s ability to mount a large new offensive in coming weeks. Ukraine and Russia are both still training their new troops and amassing weapons.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense said in an assessment Tuesday that Russia is “requiring undermanned, inexperienced units to achieve unrealistic objectives due to political and professional pressure.”
“Russian leaders will likely continue to demand sweeping advances,” it added. “It remains unlikely that Russia can build up the forces needed to substantially affect the outcome of the war within the coming weeks.”
Michael Kofman, an American military analyst and director of Russia Studies at the CAN, a research organization in Arlington, Virginia, tweeted on Monday it was unclear how big an offensive Russia is able to mount.
He added, “but I suspect it may prove underwhelming, focused largely on the Donbas.”
Meanwhile, the shelling kept Ukraine’s civilian population under pressure in some areas of the country.
Russia launched six missile and two dozen air attacks as well as 75 shelling incidents hitting civilian targets in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Kherson, over the past 24 hours, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in a statement Tuesday.
About 60,000 households in Marhanets were left without water after Russian shelling near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant cut the power supply to a local pumping station, authorities reported.
Mykola Lukashuk, who heads the Dnipropetrovsk Regional Council, accused Russian forces of firing on towns and villages neighboring the plant, Europe’s largest, with heavy artillery and multiple rocket-launchers overnight.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday appointed national police chief Ihor Klymenko as the country’s new interior minister. Klymenko had served as acting interior minister since the Jan. 18 death of his predecessor, Denys Monastyrskyi, in a helicopter crash on the outskirts of Kyiv..
The Ministry of Internal Affairs controls the police and border forces, National Guard, and emergency response service.
Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, also appointed Vasyl Malyuk to lead Ukraine’s main security agency.
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