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Russia shells outskirts of Severodonetsk as EU grants Ukraine official 'candidate' status

Troops carry the coffin of Ukrainian serviceman and politician Oleg Kytsyn on Wednesday during his funeral at Baikove Cemetery in Kyiv, Ukraine. Kytsyn was killed in combat in the Kharkiv region three days earlier. Photo by Oleg Petrasyuk/ EPA-EFE
Troops carry the coffin of Ukrainian serviceman and politician Oleg Kytsyn on Wednesday during his funeral at Baikove Cemetery in Kyiv, Ukraine. Kytsyn was killed in combat in the Kharkiv region three days earlier. Photo by Oleg Petrasyuk/ EPA-EFE

June 23 (UPI) -- Russia showered an area in eastern Ukraine with mortar and artillery attacks on Thursday as part of its sustained military effort to win greater control in the Donbas region, officials said.

For weeks, Russian forces have pounded Ukrainian positions across the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the eastern part of the country in pursuit of its top goal of the war -- winning total control of the Donbas.

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Luhansk Gov. Serhai Haidai said the city of Lysychansk was under a withering assault from Moscow on Thursday. Lysychansk is located just a few miles to the southeast of downtown Severodonetsk, the city that's been in Russia's crosshairs for the past several weeks.

"[Lysychansk] suffers from heavy fire from Russian invaders," Haidai said Thursday, according to The Guardian. "And there are so many artillery and mortars here that the Russians are simply covering entire neighborhoods with heavy fire. Numerous casualties among civilians."

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The attacks in Lysychansk continued Moscow's strategy of hitting smaller towns on the outskirts of Severodonetsk to further isolate the city, which is the largest in the Donbas that's still under some Ukrainian control.

Britain's Defense Ministry said Thursday that Russian forces advanced a few more miles toward the southern section of Lysychansk.

"Some Ukrainian units have withdrawn, probably to avoid being encircled," the ministry said in a tweet. "Russia's improved performance in this sector is likely a result of recent unit reinforcement and heavy concentration of fire."

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London's defense ministry has been monitoring Russian progress in eastern Ukraine since the fighting began in late February.

"Russian forces are putting the Lysychansk-Severodonetsk pocket under increasing pressure with this creeping advance around the fringes of the built-up area," it added. "However, its efforts to achieve a deeper encirclement to take western Donetsk Oblast remain stalled."

In his daily address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he believes Russia is trying to level cities in the eastern Donbas in the same way it did in Mariupol -- a key southern port city -- before it finally won full control there.

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"The goal of the occupiers in this direction remains the same," Zelensky said. "They want to destroy the whole Donbas step by step. Entire. Lysychansk, Slovyansk, Kramatorsk -- they aim to turn any city into Mariupol. Completely ruined."

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Since April, the top goal of Moscow's military has been to gain total control of the Donbas, which is home to a large population of pro-Russia separatists who have been fighting the Ukrainian government for almost a decade.

Elsewhere in the area on Thursday, Russia continued to expand attacks in other settlements around Severodonetsk, including Sloviansk and Bakhmut. Officials said they are without water or electricity.

In southern Ukraine, Kryvyi Rih has also come under attack with Russian shelling and the town of Apostolove was slammed with cluster munitions, Ukrainian officials said.

Meanwhile, European Union leaders gathered in Brussels on Thursday to move toward accepting Ukraine as the bloc's 28th member. The European Commission officially gave the green light for Ukraine's candidate status, which the country has been seeking since the war began.

Gaining official candidate status is the first step in becoming a member of the EU.

Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, Vsevolod Chentsov, said the move to grant official candidate status is a psychological boost for the war-ravaged nation.

"Definitely it will take some time and we are talking about months, not years to get to the next stage," Chentsov said, according to BBC News.

Typically, becoming a member of the EU is a lengthy process -- but Ukraine's special circumstances has prompted the alliance to move at greater speed. Several countries have been official EU candidates for years but have not yet been granted member status. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for candidate status years ago, but have still not been approved.

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War in Ukraine: Scenes from Kharkiv

A woman eats food given to her by volunteers at a food delivery station run by a Hare Krishna group in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 20, 2022. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

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