By JON GAMBRELL
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia attacked the Ukrainian president’s hometown and other targets with suicide drones on Sunday, and Ukraine took back full control of a strategic eastern city in a counteroffensive that has reshaped the war.
Russia’s loss of Lyman, which it had been using as a transport and logistics hub, is a new blow to the Kremlin as it seeks to escalate the war by illegally annexing four regions of Ukraine and heightening its threats to use nuclear force. Ukraine’s recent gains have embarrassed Russian President Vladimir Putin and prompted rare domestic criticism.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday his forces now control Lyman, after Russia’s military announced Saturday its retreat.
“As of 12:30 p.m. (0930 GMT) Lyman is cleared fully. Thank you to our militaries, our warriors,” Zelenskyy said in a video address.
In southern Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s hometown Krivyi Rih came under Russian attack by a suicide drone that struck a school early Sunday and destroyed two stories of it, said Valentyn Reznichenko, the governor of Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk region.
Russia in recent weeks has begun using Iranian-made suicide drones to attack targets in Ukraine. In southern Ukraine, the Ukrainian air force said Sunday it shot down five Iranian-made drones overnight, while two others made it through air defenses.
Meanwhile, Russian attacks also targeted the city of Zaporizhzhia, Ukrainian authorities said Sunday. And Ukraine’s military said Sunday it carried out strikes on multiple Russian command posts, ammunition depots and two S-300 anti-aircraft batteries.
The reports of military activity couldn’t be immediately verified.
Ukrainian forces have retaken swaths of territory, notably in the northeast around Kharkiv, in a counteroffensive in recent weeks.
In the latest major development, Ukrainian forces encircled Russian troops holding the hub of Lyman in the east, forcing the Russians to withdraw in what the British military described as a “significant political setback” for Moscow. Taking the city paves the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push farther into territory Russia has occupied.
Lyman had been an important link in the Russian front line for ground communications and logistics. Lyman is in the Donetsk region near the border with Luhansk, two of the four regions that Russia illegally annexed Friday after forcing the population to vote in referendums at gunpoint.
Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed to have inflicted damage on Ukrainian forces in battling to hold Lyman, but said outnumbered Russian troops were withdrawn to more favorable positions.
In his nightly address Saturday, Zelenskyy said: “Over the past week, there have been more Ukrainian flags in the Donbas. In a week there will be even more.”
In a daily intelligence briefing, the British Defense Ministry called Lyman crucial because it has “a key road crossing over the Siversky Donets River, behind which Russia has been attempting to consolidate its defenses.”
The British said they believed that the city had been held by “undermanned elements” prior to the Russian withdrawal, which prompted immediate criticism from some Russian officials.
“Further losses of territory in illegally occupied territories will almost certainly lead to an intensification of this public criticism and increase the pressure on senior commanders,” the British military briefing said.
The Russian retreat from northeast Ukraine in recent weeks has revealed evidence of widespread, routine torture of both civilians and soldiers, notably in the strategic city of Izium, an Associated Press investigation has found.
AP journalists located 10 torture sites in the Ukrainian town, including a deep sunless pit in a residential compound, a clammy underground jail that reeked of urine, a medical clinic and a kindergarten.
Russian officials release limited information about military activity in what the Kremlin still refuses to call a war. Putin frames the Ukrainian gains as a U.S.-orchestrated effort to destroy Russia, and last week he heightened threats of nuclear force in some of his toughest, most anti-Western rhetoric to date.
Pope Francis on Sunday decried the nuclear threats, and appealed to Putin to stop “this spiral of violence and death.”
Meanwhile, international concerns are mounting about the fate of Europe’s largest nuclear plant after Russian forces detained its director.
The International Atomic Energy Agency announced Sunday that its director-general, Rafael Grossi would visit Kyiv and Moscow in the coming days to discuss the situation around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Grossi is continuing to push for “a nuclear safety and security zone” around the site.
The plant is in an area of Ukraine controlled by Russia and within one of the four regions that Moscow illegally annexed on Friday, and repeatedly has been caught in the crossfire of the war. Ukrainian technicians continued running the power station after Russian troops seized it, and its last reactor was shut down in September as a precautionary measure.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine