KYIV, Ukraine — KYIV, Ukraine (AP) —

Russian forces began a renewed ground assault on Ukraine’s northeast, killing and injuring several and forcing more than 1,700 civilians to evacuate from the Kharkiv region, local officials said Saturday.

Artillery, mortar, and aerial bombardments hit more than 30 different towns and villages, leaving at least three people dead and five others injured, said Kharkiv governor, Oleh Syniehubov.

Ukraine rushed reinforcements to the Kharkiv region on Friday to hold off a Russian attempt to breach local defenses, authorities said.

Russian forces stepped up their bombardment of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in late March. Friday’s attack signaled a tactical switch in the war by Moscow that Ukrainian officials had been expecting for weeks.

Russian military bloggers said the assault could mark the start of a Russian attempt to carve out a “buffer zone” that President Vladimir Putin vowed to create earlier this year to halt frequent Ukrainian attacks on Belgorod and other Russian border regions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed Friday evening that Russian forces were expanding their operations. He also called on the country’s Western allies to ensure that promised deliveries of military aid would swiftly reach the country’s frontlines.

“It is critical that partners support our warriors and Ukrainian resilience with timely deliveries. Truly timely ones,” he said in a video statement on X. “A package that truly helps is the actual delivery of weapons to Ukraine, rather than just the announcement of a package.”

The Kremlin’s forces have repeatedly sought to exploit Ukraine’s shortages of ammunition and manpower as the flow of Western military aid to Kyiv has tapered off in recent months, with promised new support still yet to arrive.

Ukraine previously said it was aware that Russia was assembling thousands of troops along the northeastern border, close to the Kharkiv and Sumy regions. Intelligence officials also said they had expected an attack there though Russia’s most recent ground offensive had been focused on parts of eastern Ukraine farther south,

While Russia’s gains in the region have so far been limited, analysts at the U.S. think tank Institute of the Study of War (ISW) described them Friday as “tactically significant.”

They said Russia had only “committed relatively limited manpower to their initial assaults” but that the offensive in Kharkiv “is meant to … (draw) Ukrainian manpower and materiel from other critical sectors of the front in eastern Ukraine.”

The Russian military could also try to cut key supply routes in the area and try to blockade Kharkiv, home to roughly 1.1 million people and only about 30 kilometers (about 20 miles) south of the border.

In the war’s early days, Russia made a botched attempt to quickly storm Kharkiv but retreated from its outskirts after about a month. In the fall of 2022, seven months later, Ukraine’s army pushed them out of Kharkiv. The bold counterattack helped persuade Western countries that Ukraine could defeat Russia on the battlefield and merited military support.

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