The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said “Ukraine will definitely win” during a working trip to the southern city of Mykolaiv, as relentless fighting in the country’s east continued.

The president handed out medals and posed for selfies with the servicemen in what appeared to be an underground shelter, according to a video posted to his official Telegram account.

“Our brave men. Each one of them is working flat out, ”he said. “We will definitely hold out! We will definitely win. “

Russian forces reached the outskirts of Mykolaiv in early March but were then pushed back to the eastern and southern edges of the region, where fierce fighting continues.

“The president inspected the building of the Mykolaiv regional state administration which was destroyed as a result of a missile strike by Russian forces,” Zelenskiy’s office said.

A Russian missile blasted a hole through the building in late March, killing 37 people.

Ukraine has made slow gains in its aim to liberate Kherson, one of Ukraine’s most strategically important Black Sea cities, which is located less than 70 miles from Mykolaiv.

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On Saturday morning, Ukrainian media reported that a car blast in Kherson injured the prisons head, in what appears to have been an attack conducted by Ukrainian partisans operating in occupied Russian territory.

There has been an increase in Ukrainian partisan warfare, particularly in the country’s south around Kherson.

During his nightly national address on Friday, Zelenskiy announced that the celebrated medic nicknamed “Taira”, Yuliia Paievska, whose footage was smuggled out of the besieged city of Mariupol by an Associated Press team, was released by Russian forces three months after she was taken captive there.

“I’m grateful to everyone who worked for this result. Taira is already home. We will keep working to free everyone, ”he said.

Paievska transferred the clips to two Associated Press journalists who were the last international reporters in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. One of the two journalists managed to escape, hiding the clips in a tampon on 15 March. Paievska was taken hostage the next day.

In its latest intelligence briefing, Britain’s defense ministry said Russia was likely to have renewed its advance in the east of Ukraine, with the intention to penetrate deeper into the Donetsk region and envelope the pocket around the embattled city of Sievierodonetsk from the north.

Russia aims to fully capture Sievierodonetsk, a key city in its push for full control of the eastern Luhansk region.

More than 500 civilians, including 40 children, are believed to be trapped inside the Azot factory in the city. Weeks of Russia’s relentless bombardment of Sievierodonetsk, including its industrial area, have reduced much of the city to rubble.

The shelling of the Azot plant echoes the earlier bloody siege of the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, where hundreds of fighters and civilians took shelter from Russian shelling.

Britain also warned on Saturday that Russia was likely to claim justification in making less of a distinction between civilian and Ukrainian military targets in the area if civilians in Sievierodonetsk did not take up the Russian offer to evacuate via existing corridors. Moscow has previously accused Ukraine of disrupting plans to open a humanitarian corridor for civilians to leave the area.

The evacuation planned to bring civilians from the Azot plant to Svatove, a city north of Sievierodonetsk controlled by pro-Russian forces.

Overnight Russian shelling also damaged a municipal building and started a fire in a block of flats in Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, the regional governor said.

Peace negotiations between the two countries have largely stalled as the fighting has turned into a grinding war of attrition, with both sides indicating that a return to talks may be difficult.

On Saturday, the head of Ukraine’s negotiating team, David Arakhamia, said talks with Russia could resume in late August after Kyiv conducts “a series of counter-offensive operations”.

Commenting on Arakhamia’s statements, Dmitry Medvedev, the chair of Russia’s security council and a former president, wrote on his Telegram page that by August “the question will be whether we will have someone to talk to”, in the latest string of statements by senior Russian officials that questioned Ukraine’s statehood.

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