After weeks of fierce fighting, Ukrainian forces have begun to withdraw from a beleaguered town in the east of the country to move to stronger positions, a regional official said on Friday, after four months of Russian invasion.

The planned withdrawal from Sievierodonetsk, the administrative center of the Luhansk region, comes after relentless Russian bombardment reduced most of the industrial city to rubble and reduced its population from 100,000 to 10,000. Ukrainian troops fought the Russians in house-to-house battles before retreating to the huge Azot chemical plant on the outskirts of the city, where they remain locked in its vast underground structures in which around 500 civilians have also taken refuge.

In recent days, Russian forces have made gains around Sievierodonetsk and the nearby town of Lysychansk, on a steep bank across a river, in an effort to encircle Ukrainian forces.

Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk were the focal point of the Russian offensive aimed at capturing all of Donbass and destroying the Ukrainian army defending it – the most capable and battle-hardened segment of the country’s armed forces. The two cities and their surroundings are the last major pockets of Ukrainian resistance in the Luhansk region, 95% of which are under the control of Russian and local separatist forces. The Russians and separatists also control about half of the Donetsk region, the second province of Donbass.

Associated press