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Ukrainian forces march farther east as Donbas republics seek referendum to join Russia

Ukrainian servicemen ride on Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) and a tank, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, near the town of Izium, recently liberated by Ukrainian Armed Forces, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine , on September 19, 2022. (Photo by Reuters)

Ukrainian forces claim to have marched farther east into areas abandoned by Russia, paving the way for fierce confrontation in the breakaway Donbas region, amid calls from local groups to hold referendums on joining Russia.

In a televised address late on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the military forces were now focused on “speed” in liberated areas.

“The speed at which our troops are moving. The speed in restoring normal life,” the embattled president said.

He also hinted that he would use his video address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday to call on countries to accelerate weapons and aid deliveries.

“We are doing everything to ensure Ukraine’s needs are met at all levels – defense, financial, economic, diplomatic,” Zelensky said.

Russia launched a military operation in Ukraine in late February, following Kiev’s failure to implement the terms of the 2014 Minsk agreements and Moscow’s recognition of the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin said one of the goals of what he called a “special military operation” was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.

The Russian forces liberated many areas but were forced to withdraw from some areas as Ukraine intensified its counter-attacks using Western weapons.

Serhiy Gaidai, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, a province in the Donbas now the under control of Russian troops, said Ukrainian forces had regained complete control of the village of Bilohorivka and were gearing up to seize back the entire province from Russian forces.

“There will be fighting for every centimeter,” Gaidai wrote on Telegram. “The enemy is preparing their defense. So we will not simply march in.”

'A referendum on Russia'

As a result of the Ukrainian offensive in the eastern Donbas region, head of the Moscow-based separatist administration in Donetsk Denis Pushilin proposed a referendum for Donbas to join Russia.

The Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) must “immediately” hold a “referendum” on joining Russia, its civic chamber said on Monday, shortly after a similar move by the equivalent body of the neighboring Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).

The chamber, addressing the head of the DPR Denis Pushilin, said the time for “decisive actions” has come, urging him to hold the vote as soon as possible. 

“All of us feel and know for a long time that Donbass is Russia, we have been fighting for this for eight long years. For this, we daily suffer strikes on our homes, streets, hospitals, schools and kindergartens,” the head of the chamber, Aleksander Kofman, said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian forces made some slow advancement in the south, sinking a barge carrying Russian troops and equipment across a river near Nova Kakhovka in the Kherson region.

“Attempts to build a crossing failed to withstand fire from Ukrainian forces and were halted. The barge ... became an addition to the occupiers' submarine force,” the military said in a statement on Facebook.

According to Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Synehubov, Ukrainian forensic experts have so far dug up 146 bodies buried without coffins. 

Zelensky claims that some 450 graves have been found at the site, with a majority of the bodies appearing to be that of civilians.

Reports have been doing rounds in recent months about Ukrainian forces shelling civilians in the east of the country and accusing Russia of their atrocities.

However, the Ukrainian government has pinned the blame on Russia, claiming that there have also been signs of torture among the discovered dead bodies.

“It's a lie, and of course, we will defend the truth in this story,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday, dismissing the allegations. 

Asked about Zelenskiy's statements, Peskov told reporters: "It's the same scenario as in Bucha. It's a lie, and of course, we will defend the truth in this story."

Russia previously rejected claims that its troops had committed war crimes in Bucha, outside the capital, after evidence of civilians being killed while the town was controlled by Russian troops came to light after Russia's withdrawal at the end of March.

Ukraine also accused Russian forces of shelling near the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear power plant in the country’s southern Mykolaiv region.

According to Ukraine’s atomic power operator Energoatom, a blast occurred 300 meters away from the reactors and damaged power plant buildings. 

However, the reactors and staff were safe and sound.

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