Russian forces have started to "destroy" the Ukrainian town of Vovchansk and all but 200 of its residents have fled due to fighting, the region's governor said Friday.

Moscow launched a surprise ground assault into northeast Ukraine last week, advancing on several settlements including Vovchansk, just five kilometers (three miles) from the border.

"The enemy has actually started to destroy the city. It is not just dangerous to be there, but impossible," the governor of the Kharkiv region Oleh Synehubov said in a briefing.

He said Russian forces were trying to surround the town, which had a population of around 18,000 before the war, and that Ukraine's forces were "resisting".

But he warned Russia was now gaining ground near Lukyantsi, a village much further west that Kyiv pulled back from earlier this week amid heavy fire.


Army chief Oleksandr Syrsky said Russia had expanded its "area of combat operations" by 70 kilometres and was trying to force Ukraine to pull troops from its reserves.

"We realise that there will be heavy fighting ahead and the enemy is preparing for it," he said.

Ukraine has evacuated almost 9,000 people in the week since Russian forces stormed across the border on May 10, unleashing heavy artillery fire on multiple villages.

A Ukrainian police official accused Russian troops on Thursday of capturing dozens of civilians in Vovchansk and using them as "human shields" to defend their command headquarters.

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