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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

By Pavel Polityuk

KYIV (Reuters) -Russian forces attacked Ukraine's capital on Monday for the second time in a week while Russian and Ukrainian forces battled it out in heavy fighting around two towns in the Donbas region in the east, officials said.

Fighting was particularly intense this weekend in Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up the industrial Donbas, and the Kherson province in the south. They constitute three of the four regions Russia said it had annexed last month after holding what it called referendums – votes that were denounced by Kyiv and Western governments as illegal and coercive.

"The key hot spots in Donbas are Soledar and Bakhmut," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on Sunday. "Very heavy fighting is going on there."

Bakhmut has been a target of Russian forces in their slow move through the region since taking the twin industrial towns of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk in June and July.

Soledar is just north of Bakhmut.

Russia's defence ministry said on Sunday its forces had repelled efforts by Ukrainian troops to advance in the Donetsk, Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. Russia also said it was continuing air strikes on military and energy targets in Ukraine.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the reports on the fighting.

Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 in what it called a "special operation" to root out what it calls dangerous nationalists. Ukrainian forces have mounted stiff resistance, with the help of arms supplied by the United States and its allies, who have also imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia in an effort to force it to withdraw.

Away from the front line, Ukraine's capital of Kyiv was attacked on Monday by so-called kamikaze drones, Andriy Yermak, head of the president's staff, wrote on the Telegram messaging service. "Russians think it will help them," Yermak said.

Kyiv's Mayor Vitaly Klitschko said on Telegram that several blasts had rocked the capital's central Shevchenkivskyi district, with a Reuters witness reporting three explosions. Several residential buildings had been damaged, he said.

"Rescuers are on the site," Klitschko said, adding that a fire had broken out in a non-residential building. There was no immediate word on casualties.

The same district was hit by explosions a week ago, as Russia ordered the biggest aerial offensive against Ukrainian cities in retaliation for a blast on a bridge linking mainland Russia to Crimea - the peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The head of the Russian-backed administration in the Donetsk region said on Sunday Ukrainian shelling had damaged the administration building in the regional capital.

"It was a direct hit, the building is seriously damaged. It is a miracle nobody was killed," said Alexei Kulemzin, surveying the wreckage, adding that all city services were still working.

There was no immediate reaction from Ukraine to the attack on Donetsk city, which was annexed by Russian-backed separatists in 2014 along with swathes of the Donbas.

Rybar, a pro-Russian military channel on Telegram, said Ukrainian forces again shelled the southwestern Russian town of Belgorod, near Ukraine.

Anti-aircraft units intercepted most of the attacks, but there were two explosions near the airport. Three people were injured, it said.

Gunmen Open Fire

Russian authorities said on Sunday, a criminal investigation had been opened after gunmen shot dead 11 people and wounded 15 at a military training ground in the Belgorod region.

Russia's RIA news agency, citing the defense ministry, said two gunmen opened fire with small arms during a training exercise on Saturday, targeting personnel who had volunteered to fight in Ukraine. RIA said the gunmen, who it referred to as "terrorists", were shot dead.

Russia's defense ministry said the attackers were from a former Soviet republic, without elaborating. A senior Ukrainian official, Oleksiy Arestovych, said the two men were from the mainly Muslim Central Asian republic of Tajikistan and had opened fire after an argument over religion.

Reuters was not immediately able to confirm the comments by Arestovych, a prominent commentator on the war, or independently verify casualty numbers and other details.

Meanwhile, British military intelligence said Russia was facing more acute logistical problems in the south after the damage to the road-and-rail bridge linking mainland Russia to Crimea caused by the Oct. 8 blast.

A spokeswoman for Ukraine's Southern Military Command said Russian forces were suffering severe shortages of equipment because of the damage to the bridge.

Almost 75% of Russian military supplies in southern Ukraine come across the bridge, the spokeswoman said.

Russian officials said the explosion on the bridge was caused by a truck bomb. Putin has branded the blast a "terrorist attack" orchestrated by Ukrainian security services.

Ukraine did not claim responsibility for the blast but celebrated it.

European Union foreign ministers are expected to agree on Monday on a mission to train 15,000 Ukrainian troops and an extra 500 million euros ($487 million) in funding for arms for Kyiv.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Himani Sarkar; editing by Lincoln Feast and Robert Birsel)


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