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Ukrainian flag, Russian corpses evidence of Kyiv’s advance in south

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By Vitalii Hnidyi

NESKUCHNE, Ukraine (Reuters) -Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag flew over a ruined grocery store and Russian soldiers lay dead in the street of the village of Neskuchne, reached by Reuters journalists on Tuesday in the first independent confirmation of Ukraine’s biggest advances for seven months.

Not a single resident could be found in Neskuchne, one of a cluster of settlements on the Mokry Yali river that Ukraine says its troops have captured in a steady advance southwards into Russian-held territory since their operation began last week.

Ukrainian troops rode through the muddy streets on the back of a tank and in a pick-up truck. A warplane flew overhead, firing flares.

“Three days ago the Russian forces were still here. We chased them out of Neskuchne. Glory to Ukraine,” said Artem, a member of a Ukrainian territorial defence unit, who gave no surname. “These are Ukrainian lands.”

The mainly one- and two-storey buildings in the village, which had a population of several hundred before Russia invaded last year, had nearly all been damaged. The scene was silent, apart for the crump of artillery fire in the distance.

Reuters saw at least three dead Russian soldiers lying in the street, including one whose fly-blown body lay by an abandoned Russian military vehicle. Artem said the advancing Ukrainian troops had watched from a drone as comrades initially tried to evacuate him, only to dump him where he lay and flee.

It was the first independent confirmation of Ukraine’s advance in the area, roughly 90 km southwest of the city of Donetsk, one of several axes where it is trying to break through Russian lines in the early days of a long-awaited counteroffensive.

MISSILE STRIKE

Elsewhere on Tuesday, a Russian missile strike killed at least 11 people in an apartment building and warehouses in Kryvyi Rih, birthplace of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Residents sobbed outside the burnt-out apartment block and smoke billowed after the early-morning attack. Officials said at least four people were killed there and another seven in the warehouses. Twenty-eight were injured.

Survivors described two explosions. Olha Chernousova said she was thrown out of her bed by a violent blast wave. She escaped onto her balcony to wait for rescuers. “I thought I would have to jump into a tree.”

Moscow denies intentionally targeting civilians but has repeatedly struck apartment buildings with long-range missiles, often at perceived turning points in the war. It killed 25 people in an apartment block in the central city of Uman six weeks ago at the start of an intensified campaign of drone and missile strikes in the run-up to Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

EARLY DAYS OF ASSAULT

Ukraine began its counterassault last week after sticking to the defensive through seven months of a huge Russian winter and spring campaign that yielded scant gains despite the bloodiest ground combat in Europe since World War Two.

So far Ukraine’s offensive is still in its early days, with tens of thousands of fresh troops and hundreds of Western armoured vehicles yet to be committed to the fight. Russia, for its part, has had months to prepare several layers of defensive lines, meaning Ukraine’s advance does not necessarily amount to a breach through the front.

After a week of giving little information about its offensive, Ukraine said on Monday it had recaptured seven settlements so far. Troops have advanced up to 6.5 km (4 miles) and seized 90 square km (35 square miles) of ground along a 100 km-long stretch of the southern front line, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a televised meeting with Russian military bloggers, said on Tuesday the goals of Russia’s military campaign had not fundamentally changed, and claimed that Ukraine had suffered 10 times the casualties as Russia.

Leaked U.S. intelligence documents have estimated Russia has suffered losses several times greater than Ukraine’s, with the worst casualties coming in recent months during the winter and spring campaign that captured scant territory.

Russia has not acknowledged any Ukrainian gains since the counteroffensive began last week, and says it has repelled repeated advances. Its defence ministry said on Tuesday its forces had fended off Ukrainian attacks near the villages of Makarivka, Rivnopil and Prechystivka. Makarivka is located further south along the river from Neskuchne.

Moscow also released video footage of what it said were German-made Leopard tanks and U.S.-made Bradley Fighting Vehicles captured in battle. Reuters could not immediately verify the location or time of the footage.

Military analysts say the fighting so far is probably still mainly probing attacks by the Ukrainians who have yet to unleash the bulk of their forces, while Russia’s main defensive fortifications still lie further back.

(Additional reporting by Max Hunder in Kryvyi Rih and Reuters Bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alex Richardson)

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