WRAPUP 7-Street battles rage in eastern Ukraine's Sievierodonetsk
Adds quotes, details
By Pavel Polityuk and Abdelaziz Boumzar
KYIV/SLOVIANSK, Ukraine, June 9 (Reuters) - Ukrainian forces were holding their positions in intense street fighting in the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, where Russians were "dying like flies", the region's governor said on Thursday, but they faced a "catastrophic" lack of artillery.
The battle amid the ruins of Sievierodonetsk, a small industrial city, has become one of the war's bloodiest, with Russia concentrating its invasion force there. Both sides say they have inflicted massive casualties.
In the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), one of Russia's proxies in eastern Ukraine, a court sentenced two Britons and a Moroccan who were captured while fighting for Ukraine to death, Russian news agencies reported.
Britain slammed the court's decision as a "sham judgment" with no legitimacy. nL8N2XW4F4
In the south, Ukraine's defence ministry said it had captured new ground in a counter-attack in Kherson province, targeting the biggest swathe of territory Russia has seized since its invasion.
Thousands of people have been killed and millions have fled since Moscow launched its "special military operation" to disarm and "denazify" its neighbour on Feb. 24. Ukraine and its allies call the invasion an unprovoked war of aggression.
Speaking in Moscow to mark the 350th anniversary of Russian Tsar Peter the Great's birth, President Vladimir Putin drew a parallel between what he portrayed as their historic quests to win back what he called Russian lands. nL8N2XW30C
Sievierodonetsk and its twin city Lysychansk on the opposite bank of the Siverskyi Donets river are the last Ukrainian-controlled parts of Luhansk province, which Moscow is determined to seize as one of its principal war objectives.
"They (the Russians) are dying like flies ... fierce fighting continues inside Sievierodonetsk," said Luhansk governor Serhiy Gaidai in an online post.
Gaidai predicted the Russians would try to take advantage of low water levels to cross the Siverskyi Donets river. "We are watching and if anything happens we will act proactively."
Russian forces are focusing all of their might in the area, Ukraine's Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.
"They don't spare their people, they're just sending men like cannon fodder," he said. "They are shelling our military day and night."
Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on Thursday around 10,000 civilians were still trapped inside the city - around a tenth of its pre-war population.
In a rare update from Sievierodonetsk, the commander of Ukraine's Svoboda National Guard Battalion, Petro Kusyk, said Ukrainians were drawing the Russians into street fighting to neutralise Russia's artillery advantage.
"Yesterday was successful for us - we launched a counteroffensive and in some areas we managed to push them back one or two blocks. In others they pushed us back, but just by a building or two," he said in a televised interview.
But he added his forces were suffering from a "catastrophic" lack of counter-battery artillery to fire back at Russia's guns, and getting such weapons would transform the battlefield.
Reuters could not independently verify the situation on the ground in the city.
To the west of Sievierodonetsk, Russia is pushing from the north and south, trying to trap Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region comprising Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk province.
In Soledar, a salt-mining town near Bakhmut close to the front line, buildings had been blasted into craters.
Remaining residents, mostly elderly, were sheltering in a crowded cellar. Antonina, 65, had ventured out to see her garden. "We are staying. We live here. We were born here," she sobbed. "When is it all going to end?"
Ukraine is one of the world's biggest grain and food oil exporters, and international attention has focused in recent weeks on the threat of international famine seen as caused by Russia's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports.
"Millions of people may starve if the Russian blockade of the Black Sea continues," Zelenskiy said on Thursday in televised remarks.
Moscow blames the food crisis on Western sanctions restricting its own grain exports. It says it is willing to let Ukrainian ports open for exports if Ukraine removes mines and meets other conditions. Kyiv calls such offers empty promises.
Turkey, a NATO power with good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow, has tried to mediate.
Russia has also been trying to sell grain from areas of Ukraine it seized, activity Kyiv and the West call looting. Asked if any deal had been reached to sell grain from southern Ukraine to Turkey or a Middle Eastern country, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: "So far no agreements have been reached, work is continuing."
(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alex Richardson)