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Ukraine’s military says it has launched a major counteroffensive in the south of the country as it seeks to recapture territory taken earlier by Russian troops, even as Kremlin forces continue to blast eastern Ukraine in their drive to take the crucial Donbas region.

The Ukrainian southern command on July 12 said it had struck an ammunition depot in the Russian-held town of Nova Kakhovka, resulting in a massive blast captured on social media and the deaths of several Russian soldiers.

“Based on the results of our rocket and artillery units, the enemy lost 52 [soldiers], an Msta-B howitzer, a mortar, and seven armored and other vehicles, as well as an ammunition depot in Nova Kakhovka,” Ukraine’s southern military command said in a statement.

However, Russia’s state-run TASS news agency reported that the target was a mineral-fertilizer storage site that exploded, and that a market, hospital, and nearby homes were damaged. Some ingredients in fertilizer can be used for ammunition.

Volodymyr Leontyev, head of the Kherson region’s Kremlin-installed civil-military administration, called it a “terrorist act” and said seven civilians were killed and another 80 injured.

As with other incidents during the war, battlefield claims on either side could not immediately be independently verified.

Nova Kakhovka is about 55 kilometers east of the key Black Sea port city of Kherson, which was taken by Russian forces early in the war.

Also in the Kherson region, Ukrainian military intelligence said on July 12 that its troops had rescued five Ukrainians in a special operation in an area occupied by separatist forces.

“Five Ukraine citizens held by the Russian occupiers were released” during a “special operation” by Ukrainian military intelligence forces, it said.

A statement identified the people rescued as a military serviceman, a former police officer, and three civilians. One had serious combat wounds, it added without providing further details.

The Ukrainian military earlier said it had assembled a massive force in preparation for a counteroffensive in the south as it seeks to retake key seaports — including Kherson — captured earlier by Russia following its February 24 invasion.

In the east, Russian forces continued to intensify their shelling as they hit sites in the Donetsk region, which along with the Luhansk region make up the Donbas industrial heartland of Ukraine. The Donbas has become the focus of Russia’s military effort following its failure to take Kyiv earlier in the conflict.

Ukraine’s military said Russian forces were using massive shelling in the east as preparations for an intensification of ground hostilities. Ukrainian officials have called the strikes on civilian targets in the region “war crimes” and pleaded with the West to step up the delivery of weapons needed to resist the onslaught.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 11 said Russian forces had conducted 34 air strikes over the past two days and that the death toll in a strike on a five-story apartment building in the small town of Chasiv Yar had risen to 33 people, including at least one child.

Live Briefing: Russia’s Invasion Of Ukraine

RFE/RL’s Live Briefing gives you all of the latest developments on Russia’s ongoing invasion, how Kyiv is fighting back, Western military aid, worldwide reaction, and the plight of civilians and refugees. For all of RFE/RL’s coverage of the war, click here.

The Ukrainian military’s General Staff said Russian forces were using the shelling as preparations for an intensification of ground maneuvers in the east. Ukrainian officials have called the strikes on civilian targets in the region “war crimes” and pleaded with the West to step up the delivery of weapons needed to resist the onslaught.

The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War said Russia was regrouping its forces and that the massive artillery assaults were intended to set conditions for future ground advances.

Moscow denies it has targeted civilian sites, even in the face of video evidence and the near-total destruction of many Ukrainian cities and towns.

Ukraine’s effort has been boosted recently with the delivery of high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) and similar systems provided by the United States and allies, Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said earlier this week.

The United States announced on July 8 that it would be sending four more. It said that would bring the number of HIMARS sent by Washington to 12.

It was not immediately clear if Ukrainian forces used the HIMARS system to hit the Russian sites in Nova Kakhovka.

Meanwhile, the White House on July 11 said it believes Iran is planning to provide Russia with “hundreds” of unmanned aerial vehicles, including weapons-capable drones, for use in its war in Ukraine.

U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on July 11 that Washington has information that shows Iran is preparing to train Russian forces to use the drones.

Sullivan said it was a sign that Russia’s massive bombardments in Ukraine — which have allowed Moscow to consolidate gains in eastern Ukraine following setbacks around Kyiv — are “coming at a cost to the sustainment of its own weapons.”

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, AP, Reuters, BBC, and AFP

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