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Heavy fighting continues in the Donbas, with Ukrainian forces holding out against massive bombardment in the key city of Syevyerodonetsk and the nearby region as Russian forces seek to complete the encirclement of the area and cut off defenders and civilians left inside the pocket.

The British Ministry of Defense said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 17 that in the last 24 hours, the Russian military had likely continued to attempt to regain momentum on the Popasna axis, some 55 kilometers south of Syevyerodonetsk, from which they seek to surround the city.

Ukraine’s General Staff said late on June 16 that fighting had been particularly heavy in and around Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk, the twin cities held by Ukraine on the opposite bank of the Siverskiy Donets River.

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The fighting in Syevyerodonetsk has gone on for weeks in a battle that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says could determine the fate of the Donbas.

Moscow would control the whole of the Luhansk region if its troops managed to seize Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk.

The military governor of the eastern Luhansk region, Serhiy Hayday, said around 10,000 civilians, out of a prewar population of 100,000, remain trapped in Syevyerodonetsk, with essential supplies running out.

Many civilians are sheltering in bunkers beneath the city’s Azot chemical plant.

The mayor of Syevyerodonetsk, Oleksandr Stryuk, told Ukrainian television on June 16 that there were about 500 civilians trapped in shelters at the plant.

The United Nations has put the number of civilians still trapped in the city at 12,000.

“Fighting and constant shelling have been going on there for almost a week now,” he said, warning that the shelling could damage ammonia storage and trigger a chemical disaster. “It is a miracle that the whole city has not been affected.”

Across the river in Lysychansk, an air strike hit a building sheltering civilians on June 16, killing at least three and wounding at least seven, according to Hayday.

Ukraine’s soldiers managed to push back Russian advances in other areas along the front, while in Kharkiv, Russian troops halted Ukrainian troops by deploying artillery.

Near Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya, Russia also carried out attacks to pin down Ukrainian troops.

Earlier on June 16 on Ukrainian television, Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov raised the possibility of a threat from Belarus. Officials meeting on June 15 discussed the situation in the neighboring country, the condition of the Belarusian Army, and how many Russian troops are there.

Danilov said there will be an inspection in four areas to assess readiness, adding that the issue “is under the control of the president.”

In the northeastern Sumy region, Russia launched a missile strike, killing four people and injuring six others, Dmytro Zhyvytskiy, head of Sumy’s regional administration, said on Telegram.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, quoted by CNN, said the number of Ukrainians who have died since Russia invaded Ukraine in February likely stood in the tens of thousands. Reznikov said he “hopes” the figure is below 100,000.

Reznikov and other officials met with the representatives of around 50 countries in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 16. Ukraine’s request for more heavy weapons has been the main topic of the meeting.

Britain announced it would provide Ukraine with 20 multiple-launch rocket systems. Defense Minister Ben Wallace confirmed that Britain would send the units to Ukraine.

The systems were purchased from a Belgian arms company and are to be handed over directly to Kyiv in addition to “a small number of rocket-propelled grenade launchers from the British Army’s stockpile,” the BBC reported.

According to Wallace, in some locations Russia has a 20-fold advantage in artillery over the Ukrainian Army.

The British intelligence bulletin on June 17 also pointed to dissent among the Russian public regarding support for the war.

“Despite the majority of Russians telling pollsters they support the ‘special military operation,’ elements of the population both actively and passively demonstrate their opposition,” the report assessed.

British intelligence also mentioned the existence of a group of Russian recruits called the Freedom for Russia Legion that has “almost certainly deployed in combat alongside the Ukrainian military.”

Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior aide to Zelenskiy, dismissed Russia’s latest comments about being ready to resume negotiations as “an attempt to deceive the world.”

Russia wants to give the impression that it is ready to talk while planning to stab Ukraine in the back, he said. Kyiv would definitely return to the negotiations but only at the right time, he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, held a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, their second since Russia attacked Ukraine.

China has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and is holding talks about increased sales of Russian gas.

With reporting by Reuters, BBC, AFP, and dpa

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