Ukraine's military on Sunday reported recapturing a southeastern village as Russian forces claimed to repel multiple attacks in the area, while a regional official said three people were killed when Moscow's troops opened fire at a boat evacuating people from Russian-occupied areas to Ukrainian-held territory along a flooded front line far to the south.
The battlefield showdown in the southeast and chaotic scenes from inundated southern Ukraine marked the latest upheaval and bloodshed in Russia's war in Ukraine, now in its 16th month.
Oleksandr Prokudin, governor of the Kherson region, said on his Telegram account that a 74-year-old man who tried to protect a woman was among those who died in the attack on evacuees, which wounded another 10. An Associated Press team on site saw three ambulances drop off injured evacuees at a hospital, one of whom was splattered with blood and whisked by stretcher into the emergency room.
The Kherson region straddles the Dnieper River and has suffered heavy flooding since last week's breach of a dam that Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of causing. Russian forces occupy parts of the region on the eastern side of the river.
Many civilians have said Russian authorities in occupied areas were forcing would-be evacuees to present Russian passports before taking them to safety. Since then, many small boats have shuttled from Ukrainian-held areas on the west bank across the river to rescue desperate civilians stuck on rooftops, in attics and other islands of dry amid the deluge.
To the northeast, nearly half-way up the more than 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) front line, Ukrainian forces said they drove out Russian fighters from the village of Blahodatne, in the partially occupied Donetsk region. Ukraine's 68th Separate Hunting Brigade posted a video on Facebook that showed soldiers installing a Ukrainian flag on a damaged building in the village.
Myroslav Semeniuk, spokesman for the brigade, told The Associated Press that an assault team captured six Russian troops after entering several buildings where some 60 soldiers were holed up. "The enemy keeps shelling us but this won't stop us," Semeniuk said. "The next village we plan to reclaim is Urozhayne. After that, (we'll proceed) further south."
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Ukrainian troops in the area had advanced up to 1.5 kilometers (about a mile) and had taken control of another village, Makarivka.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Saturday that Ukrainian counteroffensive actions were underway. But while the recapture of Blahodatne pointed to a small Ukrainian advance, Western and Ukrainian leaders have repeatedly cautioned that efforts to expel Russian troops more broadly are expected take time. Russia has made much of how its troops have held their ground elsewhere.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Sunday continued to insist that it was repelling Ukrainian attacks in the area. It said in a statement that Ukrainian attempts at offensive operations on the southern Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia axes of the frontline over the past 24 hours had been "unsuccessful."
Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-installed official in the Zaporizhzhia region, insisted that Blahodatne and two other villages in the region were in a "gray area" in terms of who controls them. However, Rogov said in a Telegram post that Russian fighters had been forced to leave the village of Neskuchne in the Donetsk region. In a video, fighters identifying themselves as members of a Ukrainian volunteer force claimed to have taken the village.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has asserted that that Ukraine's counteroffensive had started, and said Ukrainian forces were taking "significant losses."
In other developments:
Ukrhydroenergo, Ukraine's hydropower generator, said Sunday that water levels on a reservoir above the ruptured Kakhovka dam continued to decline — at 9.35 meters (30 feet, 6 inches) on Sunday morning, marking a drop of more than seven meters since the dam break on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, below the dam, Prokudin said water levels on the Ukrainian-held west bank were receding, even if more than 32 settlements remained flooded. He said conditions were worse on the Russian-occupied eastern bank, which sits at a lower elevation and where water levels were slower to drop back down.
Also Sunday, the Russian military accused Ukrainian forces of attacking — albeit unsuccessfully — one of its ships in the Black Sea.
According to Russia's Defense Ministry, the attempted attack took place when six unmanned speedboats targeted Russia's Priazovye reconnaissance vessel that was "monitoring the situation and ensuring security along the routes of the TurkStream and Blue Stream gas pipelines in the southeastern part of the Black Sea."
All the speedboats were destroyed by the Russian military, and the ship didn't sustain any damage, the ministry said. The claim could not be independently verified, and Ukrainian officials made no immediate comment.
Ukraine and Russia reported exchanging scores of prisoners of war on Sunday; Russia said 94 of its soldiers were freed and Yermak said 95 Ukrainians were released.
Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has signed a decree ordering all Russian volunteer formations to sign contracts with the ministry by July 1, according to his deputy Nikolai Pankov. The move would give the formations legal status and allow them to receive the same state benefits as contract soldiers.
Observers say the move likely targets the Wagner private military company. Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has a long-running feud with the Russian military, said Sunday that the group would not sign such contracts "precisely because Shoigu cannot manage military formations normally."