By Tom Balmforth
KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine accused Russia of looting empty homes in the southern city of Kherson and occupying them with troops in civilian clothes to prepare for street fighting in what both sides predict will be one of the war’s most important battles.
In recent days, Russia has ordered civilians out of Kherson in anticipation of a Ukrainian assault to recapture the city, which was the first to be seized by Russian forces following their invasion in February.
Kherson, with a prewar population of nearly 300,000, has been left cold and dark after power and water were cut to the surrounding area over the past 48 hours, both sides said.
Russian-installed officials blamed Ukrainian “sabotage”, while Ukrainian officials said the Russians had dismantled 1.5 km of power lines.
Kyiv has described the evacuation of the area as a forced deportation, a war crime. Moscow says it is sending residents away for safety.
About 100 disabled children were moved from a medical facility in Dnipriany in Kherson region to the Moscow region, Ukraine’s military said on Monday. Patients from an elderly persons’ home in Kakhovka were also being moved and Russian forces are taking over those facilities, it said.
Kherson is in the only pocket of Russian-held territory on the west bank of the Dnipro River that bisects Ukraine. Recapturing it has been the main focus of Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the south, which has accelerated since the start of October.
The situation inside Kherson could not be independently confirmed. Ukrainian forces on the nearby front line have told Reuters they anticipate fierce fighting before forcing the Russian occupiers to abandon the city.
Ukraine’s military said Russian forces, “disguised in civilian clothes, occupy the premises of civilians and strengthen positions inside for conducting street battles.”
Russian forces were “involved in looting and theft from residents and from infrastructure sites and are taking away equipment, food and vehicles to the Russian Federation,” it said in an update late on Monday.
Reuters was seeking comment from Russian authorities on the Ukrainian allegations. Moscow denies abusing civilians.
The Ukrainian military reported hits on a Russian anti-aircraft facility, ammunition dump, and the destruction of Russian armour in the Beryslav district of the Kherson region, in an early Tuesday statement. It said 32 Russian military personnel were killed.
Ukrainian forces around the recently liberated village of Nova Kamyanka counted four Russian air strikes in the vicinity.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Monday that the Donetsk region in the east remained the “epicentre” of the conflict, with hundreds of Russians being killed every day.
The towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka are suffering the heaviest fighting in Donetsk region.
‘THEY CALL PEOPLE MEAT’
On the diplomatic front, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan is engaging in confidential talks with senior Russian officials aimed at lowering the risk of a broader war over Ukraine, a source familiar with the conversations said.
The source said the talks had been taking place in recent months and were going on. The Kremlin declined to comment on the talks, first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The war has inflicted major damage on the global economy and raised fears of nuclear conflict.
“We reserve the right to speak directly at senior levels about issues of concern to the United States,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told a briefing, adding the conversations have focused “only on risk reduction”.
U.S. support for Ukraine would be “unflinching and unwavering” regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s congressional elections, she said.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Ukraine was ready to negotiate with a future Russian leader but not with Vladimir Putin, after a Washington Post report that the United States had urged Kyiv to signal a readiness for peace talks to ensure it retains Western support.
“Ukraine has never refused to negotiate,” Podolyak said on Twitter, adding that Russia should first withdraw forces from Ukraine. “Is Putin ready? Obviously not.”
Zelenskiy in his nightly address on Monday said Russia should be forced to participate in “genuine” peace talks.
Russia lost all of the territory it captured in northern Ukraine in the weeks after the February invasion, and in recent months has faced major setbacks in the east and south.
Putin has responded by calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists and announcing the annexation of occupied lands. He said on Monday that 50,000 newly recruited reservists were already fighting in combat units.
But as more troops get sent to the front and casualties mount, there has been increasing disquiet within Russia over the conduct of the war.
Russia’s defence ministry took the rare step on Monday of denying that an elite unit had suffered catastrophic losses, after Russian military bloggers posted an open letter from surviving members of the Pacific Fleet’s 155th marine brigade.
In the letter, addressed to Oleg Kozhemyako, governor of the unit’s Pacific coast base home region, the marines said that over just four days their unit had lost 300 men killed, wounded or missing, and half of their equipment.
They blamed generals seeking medals and bonuses, who “call people meat”.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth in Kiev; Reuters bureaux; writing by Peter Graff, Mark Heinrich, Doina Chiacu and Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Robert Birsel)