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15,000 people remain in Lysychansk; death toll in Ukrainian mall attack rises

15,000 people remain in Lysychansk; death toll in Ukrainian mall attack rises
A Ukrainian woman sobs near flowers placed near the site of the destroyed shopping mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, on Tuesday. At least 20 people were killed by the rocket strike. Photo by Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE

June 29 (UPI) -- Amid a key NATO summit in Spain on Wednesday, Ukrainian forces dug into Lysychansk in an effort to buy time to be resupplied with weapons from the defensive alliance in the latest round of fighting.

Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk region military administration, said about 15,000 people were in the city despite recommendations that they evacuate.

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"The fighting continues on the outskirts of the city, [the Russians] are trying to storm constantly," Haidai said in a televised address Wednesday.

Haidai added that the Russian attacks have made it more difficult for those who remain to flee.

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"Now the density of the fire is so strong. So much that we can only put 30 people on a bus," he said. "Therefore, we are very careful about this."

Lysychansk is located in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine about 125 miles southeast of Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city that has seen a renewed Russian assault in recent days.

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Authorities in Kharkiv said that Russian missiles targeted apartment buildings and a primary school, killing several people.

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In the early days of the war, Ukrainian troops found success repelling Russian assaults on the city. Moscow, however, has re-engaged forces in the area and stepped up rocket attacks there.

After retreating from the key eastern city of Severodonetsk after weeks of holding off Russian forces, officials say Ukraine's military is now fortifying positions in Lysychansk in anticipation that Russia will ramp up attacks there, Luhansk's regional governor said.

Luhansk makes up one half of the Donbas, the far eastern part of Ukraine that's been the primary focus of Russia's military campaign since April. The Donbas is home to a sizable pro-Russia separatist population that's been fighting the Ukrainian government for almost 10 years.

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Ukrainian military officials said Moscow controls the southern and eastern approaches to Lysychansk while fighting continues near the city's main highway to the southwest.

Meanwhile, crews in Kremenchuk, about 140 miles southwest of Kharkiv, cleared away debris Wednesday from a rocket strike that destroyed a shopping mall Monday.

Kremenchuk Mayor Vitalii Maletskyi said workers in the area were attempting to determine the full scope of the civilian casualties. Officials say at least 20 people were killed in the attack, an increase of two victims since Tuesday. A number of people are also missing.

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"Rescuers from three regions of Ukraine are working at the scene," Maletskyi said, according to CNN. "They have not yet reached the epicenter of the explosion.

"There is still a large area to work on where the ceiling collapsed, the supporting structures collapsed."

Dmytro Lunin, head of Poltava region military administration, estimated that crews will be clearing away debris from the attack site for at least a few more days.

Officials have released video footage that shows the moment the mall was attacked. In the footage, a rocket can be seen hitting the retail center and setting off a large explosion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that Russia was behind the attack on the shopping center.

"The Russian army does not attack any civilian site. We don't have the need for this. We have every capability to detect specific locations; and thanks to our high-precision long-range weapons we are achieving our goals," he said at a news conference.

In the Russian-occupied Kherson region, Ukraine has made gains to recapture some villages in a counteroffensive. Kherson is the only area Russian forces hold west of the Dnieper River, but Kyiv says Ukrainian forces have been pushing Moscow from the west and the north.

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Wednesday's fighting came during the start of a key NATO summit in Spain, where leaders are working on the alliance's strategic blueprint for the next decade and evaluating ways to help Ukraine fight Russian forces.

U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed support for Ukrainian forces and promised to increase American military operations in Europe to support NATO's positions against Russia. The United States has already given billions in aid to Ukraine.

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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