Russian troops fired on an evacuation convoy of civilians in the northeast of the country on Saturday, killing 20 people, a senior Ukrainian official said. The bombings intensified, because Moscow is illegal annexed part of the territory of Ukraine in the conditions of a sharp escalation of the war.

Kharkiv Oblast Governor Oleg Sinegubav said that the convoy was targeted in the Kupyanka district, calling the attack on people who were trying to escape from the area to avoid being under fire “unjustified cruelty.”

Russian forces did not acknowledge or comment on the attack, apparently the second in two days to hit a humanitarian convoy. Russian troops withdrew from most of Kharkiv Oblast after a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive last month, but continued to shell the area

The attack came at a key moment in the war for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Faced with a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Putin this week stepped up threats of nuclear force and used his most aggressive anti-Western rhetoric to date.

President of Ukraine Vladimir Zelensky and his soldiers promised to continue fighting for the liberation of the annexed regions and other areas occupied by Russia.

Russia Ukraine War
Artillery funnels are seen in a field from a height in the recently liberated area of ​​Kharkiv Oblast, Ukraine, on September 30, 2022.

Evgeny Malaletka / AP

Ukrainian officials said Saturday that their troops had surrounded thousands of Russian troops holding the strategic eastern city of Liman, which is in one of the four incorporated districts. On Friday, Zelensky formally applied for Ukraine to join NATO, increasing pressure on Western allies to protect the country.

Also on Saturday, the Ukrainian nuclear energy supplier said that Russian forces blindfolded and detained the head of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. It looked like an attempt to entrench Moscow in the newly annexed territory.

The Russian military captured the general director of the Zaporizhzhya NPP Ihar Murashov around 4:00 p.m. on Friday, the Ukrainian state nuclear company “Energaatom” reported. This happened just hours after Putin signed agreements on the absorption of Moscow-controlled territory of Ukraine into Russia, including the area around the nuclear power plant.

“Energaatom” stated that the Russian military stopped Murashov’s car, blindfolded him and took him to an unspecified place.

Russia did not immediately recognize the capture of the plant’s director. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has staff at the plant, said it was aware of the reports of Murashov’s capture and had reached out to Russian authorities for an explanation of what happened.

“His detention (by Russia) endangers the security of Ukraine and the largest nuclear power plant in Europe,” said the president of “Energaatom” Petro Kotin, demanding the immediate release of the director.

The power station has repeatedly been caught in the crossfire of the war in Ukraine. Ukrainian specialists continued to operate the plant after Russian troops seized it, and its last reactor was shut down in September as a precaution amid continued shelling nearby.

Against the backdrop of increased international sanctions and condemnation of Russia, Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which embarrassed the Kremlin, found itself on the verge of regaining new territories.

A Ukrainian official said on Saturday that the Russian-occupied city of Liman was surrounded and about 5,000 Russian troops were trapped. The governor of Luhansk, Siarhei Gaidai, said that all ways of resupplying Russian forces in Liman are blocked.

“The occupiers asked their leadership for the opportunity to leave, which they refused,” Gaidai said in a TV interview. “Now they have three options: try to break through, surrender or perish together.”

His statement could not be immediately verified. Russia has not confirmed that its forces have been cut off, and Russian analysts have said that Moscow is sending additional troops to the area.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine would likely return Lyman in the coming days.