A bombed road as Russian forces fight for a devastated Ukrainian town

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Leaving the devastated town of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, AFP journalists had to jump out of cars twice and lie on the ground as Russian forces bombarded the main supply route from the city.

Shortly after noon (09:00 GMT), an AFP team saw black smoke rising above the road.

They heard artillery fire and saw flashes of light, while the road was littered with downed trees.

They twice saw a salvo of Grad rockets explode on both sides of the main supply route as troops from Moscow stepped up their assault.

Twice the drivers braked quickly and the team jumped out and lay in the grass by the side of the road, to the sound of whistles and bangs.

All three bombings took place on a stretch of road about 5 kilometers (3 miles) long.

A journalist was scratched on the arm and a car windshield was slightly damaged.

This happened on the road between the cities of Siversk and Bakhmut, now the main road used to reach the city of Lysychansk, because a highway was bombed for a long time.

The road was busy at that time with tanks on transporters, armored personnel carriers, jeeps and ambulances driving back and forth.

Earlier Thursday, there were also vapor trails in the sky from missiles and a possible jet plane.

A huge cloud of smoke rose into the sky near an abandoned oil refinery near Lysychansk.

‘We are here’

As the city faces an increasingly desperate battle for control, the main police station closed Thursday after coming under renewed shelling, following a first direct hit on Monday, AFP reporters said.

The entrance steps to the building were strewn with strips of siding from the destroyed porch and sand from torn sandbags. Further damage was also done to the side wall of the building.

The police station had been a hub for residents who remained in the city seeking help to evacuate or record deaths. It was still working on Tuesday.

“People say they [police] are all gone,” said a firefighter named Andriy at the main barracks.

Outside, people were filling plastic bottles with household water from a fire truck in the yard.

“We are here… We are working,” Andriy stressed.

Only 17 people left during an evacuation on Thursday morning, he said.

At the entrance to the town, soldiers were digging new trenches in apparent preparation for any Russian attempt to storm the town.

A World War II tank painted with a red star had even been removed from the war memorial and placed in a central street.

A soldier named Oleksandr, who ran errands nearby, said he was unclear as to why.

“It’s unbelievable: why they did it, I don’t know. It’s a tank from the Second World War, a T34-85 tank. It fought for the fatherland, for the USSR. These are already different countries now.”

“Won’t Forsake the City”

Oleksandr denied that the police were out of town, saying he saw them that day.

When asked if the army was preparing for street fighting, he refused to answer.

“We are defending our homeland,” he said smiling.

“I can’t say anything concrete.”

Liliya Nesterenko, 39, was riding her bicycle on a street near the closed police station.

“They [police] have to be somewhere else, they won’t abandon the city,” she said.

Dressed in a summer top and shorts, she was optimistic about the city’s defenses and said she had no plans to evacuate.

“I believe in our Ukrainian army, they have to face it,” she said.

“They’ve already prepared.”

Like other residents, she said her home had no gas, water or electricity and that she and her mother cooked over a campfire. She had gone out to feed a friend’s pets.

Firefighter Andriy said the shelling was intense that morning.

“There are a lot of injuries,” he said.

“People were going out to shop and they started bombing.”

Locals could be seen in a market and walking and cycling through the streets, some with children.

An elderly woman walked along wearing an elegant jacket, hat and amber necklace.

“It’s necessary,” she said of keeping up appearances.

“Say hello to France. You’ll never see anything like it.”

A few minutes later, the team came under fire.

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