Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has visited troops on the frontline in the northeastern region of Kharkiv in his first official appearance outside of Kyiv since the start of Russia’s invasion.
“You risk your lives for us all and for our country,” he told the soldiers, according to the president’s office website.
Mr Zelenskyy also handed out commendations and gifts during his visit to the region.
His chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, posted on Telegram to say the president had also visited Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv.
He added that 31% of the Kharkiv region was currently occupied by Russia, with a further 5% having been taken back by Ukraine.
Several loud explosions were reportedly heard in the city after Mr Zelenskyy’s visit.
A large plume of dark smoke could also be seen rising northeast of the city centre.
The city has faced renewed Russian shelling in recent days after several relatively quiet weeks.
More than 2,000 apartment buildings have been destroyed since Russia’s invasion began on 24 February, the regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said.
Troops locked in close-quarter combat
Meanwhile Russian and Ukrainian troops fought in close-quarter combat in the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk on Sunday as Moscow’s troops attempted to gain strategic footholds with the backing of intense shelling.
Ukrainian regional officials said Russian forces were “storming” the city after trying unsuccessfully to encircle it. The mayor said the fighting had knocked out power and mobile phone services and left a humanitarian relief centre unable to operate because of the danger.
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The city, located around 89 miles (143km) south of the Russian border has recently emerged as the epicentre of Moscow’s quest to capture the entirety of Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region.
‘Indescribably difficult’ situation
Russia has also increased its efforts to claim nearby Lysychansk, where civilians fled to in order to escape persistent shelling.
The two cities are the last major areas under Ukrainian control in Luhansk province, which together with neighbouring Donetsk makes up the Donbas region.
Mr Zelenskyy described the situation in the east as “indescribably difficult,” adding that the “Russian army is trying to squeeze at least some result” by concentrating its attacks there.