Ukrainian forces down the road battled to repel Russian forces from the outskirts of the key city of Severodonetsk, a Ukrainian official said, however denying claims it had been surrounded.
Russia is waging all-out war for the eastern Donbas region — Ukraine’s industrial heartland where President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Moscow of carrying out a “genocide”.
“The town of Krasny Liman has been entirely liberated from Ukrainian nationalists,” the Russian defence ministry said, using the Russian name for Lyman and confirming an announcement a day earlier by pro-Moscow separatists.
Lyman lies on the road to the urban centres of Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk still in Moscow’s sights.
Russian forces have been closing in on Severodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk in Lugansk province, with conflicting reports about the extent of their advance.
Regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said Russian shelling continued on Severodonetsk as Ukrainian soldiers fought to oust invading forces from a hotel on its edges, but rejected claims the city had been completely encircled.
“Severodonetsk has not been cut off… there is still the possibility to deliver humanitarian aid,” he told Ukrainian television.
A Lugansk police official, cited by Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti, late Friday said Severodonetsk was “now surrounded” and Ukrainian troops could no longer leave the city.
But Zelensky late Friday said his country was doing everything to defend the Donbas from intense artillery fire, “missile strikes and aircraft attacks”.
“We are protecting our land in the way that our current defence resources allow,” he added.
“We are doing everything to increase them.”
As the country faces an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation, an Australian man was on Saturday reported to have been killed this week while supplying aid.
Tasmania’s Mercury newspaper identified the man as Michael Charles O’Neill, 47, with a tribute on Facebook saying he had been “driving the wounded and injured from the front line”. An Australian official confirmed the death.
Three months after Russia launched its invasion on February 24, leaving thousands dead on both sides and forcing 6.6 million people out of the country, Moscow has gained control over swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine, including port cities Kherson and Mariupol.
Russia Saturday announced the latest test of its Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, which it said had dashed across some 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) and “successfully hit” a target in the Arctic.
To further help Ukraine fight back, Washington was preparing to send advanced long-range rocket systems, according to US media reports.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not confirm the plans to deliver the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System, a highly mobile system capable of firing up to 300 kilometres (186 miles) that Kyiv has said it badly needs.
But he said Washington was “still committed to helping them succeed on the battlefield”.
Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to President Zelensky, said on Twitter that some of Ukraine’s partners “avoid giving the necessary weapons because of fear of the escalation. Escalation, really?”
Russian ship in Mariupol
Seeking to increase international pressure on Russia, Zelensky will speak with EU leaders at an emergency summit Monday as they try to agree on an embargo on Russian oil, which is being held up by Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban has close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Rather than continue trading with (Russia), we need to act until they stop their policy of aggression,” Zelensky told a think tank in Indonesia.
But in Moscow, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Russia expects to receive one trillion rubles ($15 billion) in additional oil and gas revenues this year, a windfall from the sharp rise in oil prices caused in part by its invasion of Ukraine.
As his navy blockades Ukrainian ports, Putin also rejected claims he was disrupting food supplies worldwide.
Russia and Ukraine supply about 30 percent of the wheat traded on global markets.
Russia has tightened its own exports and Ukraine has vast amounts stuck in storage, driving up prices and cutting availability for importers across the globe.
But a spokesman for the Russian-controlled port of Mariupol said a first ship had docked there on Saturday, barely a week after the last Ukrainian fighters surrendered and left the city.
“It will be loaded up with 2.7 tonnes of steel,” he told Russian state news agency TASS.
A correspondent for staunchly pro-Kremlin Russian newspaper Izvestia said it was accompanied by two warships.
There was however no official announcement from either the Russian or separatist authorities.
Russian forces battered the port city for months before the last Ukrainian fighters at its sprawling steelworks finally laid down their weapons last week.