KYIV, Ukraine — Russian troops are forcibly relocating people from occupied areas near the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, a Ukrainian official said on Sunday, suggesting it could indicate that Moscow’s forces might be preparing to withdraw further from that area ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Russian forces retreated from Kherson in November and decamped to just across the Dnipro River, from where they have continued to launch frequent attacks on the city. In recent weeks, the Ukrainian military has warned that the Russian occupation authorities have been preparing to evacuate civilians from the territory it still controls in the broader Kherson region before any potential counteroffensive.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian head of Kherson’s regional council, Oleksandr Samoylenko, said the evacuations had begun.
“I have information that the evacuation starts today with an excuse of protecting civilians from the consequences of heavy fighting in the area,” Mr. Samoylenko said. He said the troops were “trying to steal as much as they can” as they withdrew.
The assertions could not be independently verified, and there was no immediate comment from the Russian authorities. However, at other points in the war, evacuations from Russian occupied areas have precipitated an eventual pullback of Russian forces in the face of Ukrainian advances. And in Moscow’s view, Kherson is one of several Ukrainian regions that are now legally part of Russia.
Seizing back chunks of Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine is widely believed to be one potential aim of an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, and Mr. Samoylenko’s remarks came as military analysts reported that small teams of Ukrainian forces had recently seized marshy islands on a stretch of the Dnipro River near the city of Kherson, which is in Ukrainian hands.
Citing Russian military bloggers, analysts from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said in a report on Saturday that Ukrainian forces had been attacking Russian troops dug into the riverbanks a mile or so outside Kherson. And residents of the city reached by phone on Sunday said that the Ukrainian military had been increasingly active along the river.
Ukrainian officials — who have kept details of any counteroffensive closely guarded — were tight-lipped about their troops’ movements on Sunday. Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military southern command, did not confirm or deny the reports that Ukrainian forces were advancing across the Dnipro River. She said the Russian forces were “stealing everything they could get their hands on: domestic appliances, factory equipment, even A.T.M. machines,” adding, “Whenever the Russians start stealing everything, it means they are not going to return.”
A looting spree occurred before the Russians’ sudden withdrawal from the city of Kherson in mid-November. A few weeks before they left, the Russians cleaned out the city’s factories, boatyards, car dealerships and Kherson’s significant collection of fine art and priceless ancient artifacts. Ms. Humeniuk said that Russian forces were preparing new lines of defense along the river and that commanders had brought in the Russian National Guard to watch over other troops and make sure they didn’t try to desert.
Ukraine’s Western allies have been rushing in tanks, field cannons and crates of artillery shells ahead of a counteroffensive, though the supplies have so far fallen short of what has been pledged, according to leaked classified documents.
In the meantime, Russian forces continued to pound Ukrainian cities with missiles, mortars, artillery fire and airstrikes over the weekend, killing at least one person and taking out homes and critical infrastructure, Ukrainian officials said Sunday.
The damage reports came in from various hot spots: Kherson; Kharkiv, in the northeast; and the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Russian forces have been slowly but steadily advancing. Seizing Bakhmut and the entire Donbas region has been a priority for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“Fierce battles for the city of Bakhmut continue,” according to a Sunday morning update from the Ukrainian military’s General Staff. But the update emphasized that Bakhmut was hardly the only target and that Russian forces had rained down dozens of airstrikes and many other artillery attacks across the country.
“The threat of further missile and airstrikes on the entire territory of Ukraine remains high,” the battlefield update said. The Ukrainian reports could not be independently verified.
In just two southern regions, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, Russian forces hit more than 30 settlements with mortar and artillery fire over the past 24 hours, according to the update. Ukrainian officials said that in the Zaporizhzhia area, which Russia partly occupies, Russian forces were building fortifications, deploying anti-tank weapons and laying many mines, in case of a counteroffensive.
Here’s what else is happening in Ukraine:
Deadly Mines: The Kherson regional military administration said that a 30-year-old in a farming town had died after he “came across a Russian explosive.” The report did not provide further details, but more than 100 Ukrainians have been killed by mines and other concealed explosives left behind by Russian forces, the Ukrainska Pravda news outlet reported on Saturday, citing Ruslan Berehulia, a Ukrainian demining official. The dead include six children, he said.
Ukrainian teams have been deployed to demine liberated areas, but specialists believe there are still thousands of Russian mines, trip wires and booby traps hidden across the country. An area more than four times the size of Switzerland is unsafe because of land mines, the United Nations has estimated. The Ukrainian military has also deployed thousands of antipersonnel mines in apparent violation of an international treaty barring their use, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, though not on the scale used by Russia.
Diplomatic Outrage: China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, has caused dismay in Europe by suggesting that countries that broke off from the former Soviet Union lacked full status in international law. In an interview with the French network TF1 on Friday, Mr. Lu was asked whether he thought Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, was part of Ukraine under international law. He noted that Crimea was Russian historically and had been handed over to Ukraine. He added, “Even these countries of the former Soviet Union do not have an effective status in international law, since there is no international agreement that would specify their status as sovereign countries.”
Mr. Lu has a history of combative remarks, and his latest comments appeared to fly in the face of Beijing’s declared respect for the sovereignty of Ukraine and other former Soviet countries. China and Ukraine established diplomatic relations in 1992. But China has also echoed the Russian claims that NATO expansion in Eastern Europe goaded Mr. Putin into war in Ukraine.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, called the comments “absurd” while a spokesperson for the French foreign ministry said it would be up to Beijing to clarify whether Mr. Lu’s comments reflected its stance, Reuters reported.
Steven Erlanger and Chris Buckley contributed reporting.