Thousands of people been evacuated from border areas in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, as Russia kept up constant strikes on a key town as part of a cross-border offensive, officials said Sunday.

The surprise Russian attack across Ukraine's northeastern border began on Friday, with troops making small advances in an area from where they had been pushed back nearly two years ago.

"In total, 4,073 people have been evacuated," Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov wrote on social media, a day after Russian forces claimed the capture of five villages in the region.

Ukraine has reported several civilians killed in the offensive. Synegubov said the latest casualty -- a 63-year-old man -- was killed by artillery fire in the village of Glyboke.

On Sunday AFP saw groups of people who had been evacuated from around the border town of Vovchansk, most of them elderly and disoriented.

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"We weren’t going to leave. Home is home," said 72-year-old Lyuda Zelenskaya, hugging a trembling cat named Zhora.

Liuba Konovalova, 70 said she had endured a "really terrifying" night before her evacuation.

The pair, who lived together after their children married each other and moved away, were at a first point for evacuees in the Kharkiv region.

Around them, volunteers assisted elderly evacuees towards a few wooden benches where they registered and received food before being evacuated toward the city of Kharkiv, the regional capital.

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- 'Everything... is being destroyed' -

Oleksiy Kharkivsky, a senior police officer from Vovchansk helping to coordinate  evacuations, said "several people" had been killed by shelling on Saturday and one person was found dead in rubble overnight.

"The city is constantly under fire," he said.

"Everything in the city is being destroyed... You hear constant explosions, artillery, mortars. The enemy is hitting the city with everything they have," he said.

The Ukrainian army said it was holding back any further Russian advances.

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"Russian occupants' attempts to break through our defense have been stopped," said Ukraine's commander-in-chief Oleksandr Syrsky.

But he said the situation in Kharkiv region had "deteriorated significantly" and was "complicated".

Ukrainian forces "are doing everything they can to hold their defensive lines and positions and inflict damage on the enemy," he said.

- Evacuation teams under fire -

Kharkivsky estimated that around 1,500 people had been evacuated or fled Vovchansk since Friday and there had been 32 drone strikes on the town over the past 24 hours.

He said evacuation teams had come under fire "many times".

On Saturday, AFP saw groups of people fleeing the border area arriving in vans and cars loaded with bags at a reception centre for evacuees near Kharkiv.

Evacuees -- most of them elderly -- received food and medical assistance and could sleep in bunk beds.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that Ukrainian troops had been carrying out counterattacks in the border villages.

"Disrupting Russian offensive plans is now our number one task," he said.

Troops must "return the initiative to Ukraine", the president insisted, again urging allies to speed up arms deliveries.

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Ukrainian officials had warned for weeks that Moscow might try to attack its northeastern border regions, pressing its advantage as Ukraine struggles with delays in Western aid and manpower shortages.

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