Pro-Kyiv group reports second day of fighting in Russia's Belgorod
PHOTO CAPTION: A still image from a drone footage released by Freedom of Russia Legion shows, what they claim, is a destruction of Russian military targets, near Novaya Tavolzhanka, Belgorod Region, Russia, in this image obtained from social media released on June 1, 2023. Freedom Of Russia Legion/via REUTERS
(Reuters) - A group of pro-Ukrainian forces said on Friday they were fighting Russian troops on the outskirts of a village just inside Russia's western border, a day after Moscow said it had repelled three cross-border attacks.
The attacks follow a major incursion into Russia's western Belgorod region on May 22-23 and an increase in cross-border shelling in recent weeks as Ukraine prepares to launch a big push to recapture Russian-occupied land in its east and south.
"We have active fighting on the outskirts of the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka (in Belgorod region). Unfortunately, there are wounded legionnaires, but freedom is won through blood," the Freedom of Russia Legion said in a statement.
Reuters was unable to verify the situation in Belgorod region.
The group describes itself as Russians fighting against Russian President Vladimir Putin's government to create a Russia that would be part of the "free world".
Along with the Russian Volunteer Corps founded by a far-right Russian nationalist, they say they Russian volunteers attacking under their own steam, and not on the orders of Ukraine, which denies involvement.
Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, says the groups are "terrorists" acting as proxies for Kyiv and the governor of Russia's Belgorod region said two people had been killed and two wounded in Ukrainian shelling on Friday.
The Freedom of Russia Legion blamed Russia for the shelling on Telegram, while posting images of what it said was one of its tanks in the Russian village of Novaya Tavolzhanka and soldiers taking cover behind a wall during a gunfight.
"Near Tavolzhanka, the enemy destroyed a Renault car with civilians, mistaking it for a car with our sabotage group. At least two civilians were killed, and this is a direct consequence of the lack of professionalism of Putin's army," it said on Telegram messaging app.
The cross-border raids aim to stretch Russian defences and force Moscow to divert troops from inside Ukraine to shore up the border, Alexei Baranovsky, a spokesperson for the political wing of the Freedom of Russia Legion, told Reuters.
"One of our tactical aims is to draw Russian troops from other parts of the Ukrainian front," he said in an interview in Warsaw on Thursday.
"That's one aim, the other is to show Russians that a different country is possible, that an armed group has appeared that is ready to struggle for freedom. We want people to join us," he said.
He said the unit was part of Ukraine's foreign legion which is controlled by the Ukrainian military, but that the chain of command no longer applied to Russian volunteer fighters after they enter Russian territory.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska; editing by Timothy Heritage and Philippa Fletcher)