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Russia invades Ukraine, country braces for major Donbas offensive

A CNN team witnessed intense shelling of the residential district of Saltivka, in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv, with a local official saying they believed Russia was stepping up attacks amid a new phase of military operations.

Ukrainian officials have warned for days that they expect a major offensive push by Russian forces in the eastern Donbas region, as Russia repositions troops and equipment following a failed push to take Kyiv, the capital.

The CNN team was on the ground in Saltivka, a district in the northeast of Kharkiv along the E40 highway, as shelling intensified. Incoming rounds and small-arms fire were heard before Ukrainian forces warned the team to move to a safer position. 

The shelling was evidence that a broad Russian military push was underway, mirroring recent remarks by top government officials in recent days, a representative of the regional Kharkiv Prosecutor General’s Office told CNN.

Russian forces had continued shelling Kharkiv and its environs, hitting residential areas around the region with fire from multiple rocket launchers, artillery and tanks, Oleh Syniehubov, the head of the Kharkiv regional military administration, said. A number of civilians have been killed and injured in those strikes.

“The occupiers continue to terrorize the civilian population,” Syniehubov said. “They are shelling residential areas with artillery and Grad and Smerch multiple rocket launchers. The districts of Oleksiyivka, Kharkiv Tractor Plant, Saltivka, North Saltivka, Odesa, and the airport were affected again.”

“During the past 24 hours, 22 civilians were injured, including three children. Seven people died,” he added. “Unfortunately, the two-year-old boy died in the hospital.”

Syniehubov claimed Russian forces were also scattering landmines in the city in the areas of Forest Park and Saltivka.

The heaviest fighting, Syniehubov said, was around Izium in southeastern Kharkiv region. 

“This area remains the most tense in the Kharkiv region,” he said. “We will do everything to prevent the occupiers from entering the Donetsk and Luhansk regions from the direction of Izium.”

Syniehubov added that there were no grounds for the evacuation of the city of Kharkiv.

In remarks on national television Monday, Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, said: “From my point of view, this big offensive [in the east] has already started. We have to understand it’s not going to be the repetition of Feb. 24, when the first airstrikes and explosions started and we said, ‘The war has begun.’ The big offensive de facto has already started.”

Some of the heavier fighting in Ukraine has been reported around Izium, a heavily contested area in southeastern Kharkiv region. Russian troop movements are concentrated to the south and east of Kharkiv, according to the latest satellite imagery provided by Maxar Technologies and analyzed by CNN. Russian officials have said their objective is to win control of the Donbas — the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

CNN’s Maria Kostenko contributed reporting to this post from Chernivtsi.

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