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Russian forces are focusing on several small towns on their approaches to the larger cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in Donetsk Province as they continue their drive to capture all of Ukraine’s Donbas heartland in the east of the country, a British intelligence report states.

The come amid unconfirmed reports on July 13 that Ukrainian forces have struck back in possibly captured Luhansk Province — which was previously by Russian troops — using missile systems newly provided by the United States.

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Russian forces have turned their focus to capturing all of the Donbas region, made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, after they failed to take the capital, Kyiv, in the early days of the war. Ukrainian officials report massive Russian shelling on cities and towns throughout the region.

In the eastern town of Chasiv Yar, the head of the Donetsk regional military administration said the number of people killed in an air strike over the weekend on an apartment block had risen to 45.

Ukrainian officials called the shelling “a war crime” and part of Russian forces’ relentless attack on civilian areas. Moscow denies it has targeted civilians, despite video evidence and the widespread destruction of Ukrainian cities since the February 24 invasion of the country.

Ukraine has said that Russian forces are using the shelling as a preparation for a new ground offensive in Donetsk Province, particularly in the Bakhmut and Siversky areas and around Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.

The British Defense Ministry in its daily intelligence briefing said the Kremlin’s troops were nearing the towns of Siversky and Dolyna, with the urban areas of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk “the principal for this phase of operation.”

British intelligence also said anti-Russian sentiment in the occupied parts of Ukraine has led to Russian and pro-Russian officials being targeted, noting that the Russian-appointed administration in Velykiy Burluk acknowledged one of its mayors was killed on July 11 in a car bombing .

In Luhansk Province, Andrei Marochko, an official for the Russia-backed separatist group that calls itself the Luhansk People’s Republic, said the Ukrainian military had used US-supplied high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) to hit several settlements in the region.

This comes a day after Ukrainian forces hit what they said was an ammunition depot in the southern town of Nova Kakhovka, about 55 kilometers east of the key Black Sea port city of Kherson. Russian officials said civilian sites were hit in the attack.

The claims could not be independently verified.

The Ukrainian government has not commented on whether the newly acquired HIMARS were used in any attack.

The strike on Nova Kakhovka followed statements by the Ukrainian military that it was preparing a massive counterattack in the south to recapture territory while Russian forces were occupied with action in eastern regions.

Meanwhile, military delegations from Russia and Ukraine were gathering in Istanbul on July 13 to meet with UN and Turkish officials in an attempt to break a crucial impasse over grain exports that has helped send global food prices soaring.

While higher prices have caused hardships in most developed nations, many poorer countries, such as those in much of Africa, have been hit by widening food shortages.

Diplomats have said a plan being discussed involving having Ukrainian vessels guiding grain ships in and out through port waters that its forces have mined to prevent a feared amphibious assault by Russian troops.

The plan would also entail Russia agreeing to a truce while shipments move, and Turkey — with UN assistance — would inspect ships to allay Russian fears of weapons smuggling.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

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