As Ukrainian forces zero in on the southern city of Kherson, occupied by Russian troops since early in the war, the Kremlin-picked leader of the Kherson province is urging civilians to “take your children and leave’’ for Russia.

Vladimir Saldo said Thursday on Telegram that Ukrainian missile strikes are hurting civilians and damaging buildings, and he asked the Kremlin to organize evacuations from four cities, including Kherson.

Saldo said Kyiv is retaliating against Kherson — one of four Ukrainian regions Moscow claims to have annexed — for supposedly voting to join Russia last month in elections widely discredited as shams. Ukraine has maintained it doesn’t target its own civilians.

“We suggested that all residents of the Kherson region, if there is such a desire, to protect themselves from the consequences of missile strikes … go to other regions (of Russia),” Saldo wrote.

Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said later in the day that Russia would provide free accommodation to residents of the region who wanted to relocate.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive has been pushing deeper into Kherson province, although officials acknowledged recently the momentum has slowed as Russia reinforced its front lines.

US, ALLIES BOLSTER UKRAINE AIR DEFENSE:Eight arrested in Crimean bridge bombing: Updates

Other developments

►Russian attacks killed 13 people and wounded 37 across Ukraine in the past 24 hours, the Ukrainian presidential office said. Three of the deaths occurred in the southern city of Mykolaiv when missile strikes destroyed an apartment building, but an 11-year-old boy was pulled out of the rubble.

►NATO defense ministers gathered in Brussels for a second day of talks to assess the situation in Ukraine after the alliance committed on Wednesday to deliver more air defense supply to the country.

►The Ukraine Air Force said it destroyed at least four Russian helicopters in an 18-minute stretch Wednesday in the southern part of the country.

►The Ukraine military estimates more than 63,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the war. Russia has released no figures, and Ukraine does not announce its own losses.

►Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, thanked Vladimir Putin for what he said was Russia’s support organizing the upcoming soccer World Cup, which starts Nov. 20.

Front row from left, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, U.S. Secretary for Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar pose during a group photo of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Oct. 13, 2022. The ministers were convening in Brussels for the second day of talks to assess the situation in Ukraine.

Russia hammers Kyiv with Iranian drones

Russian bombs delivered by Iranian-built drones hammered the Kyiv region Thursday as Ukraine’s capital again took the brunt of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deadly wrath.

The attack comes three days after damaging missile strikes that marked the first assault on the city since the early days of the war, when Russia’s march to Kyiv was driven back by Ukrainian forces.

“Another attack by kamikaze drones on critical infrastructure facilities,” the deputy head of the presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said on Telegram. “The relevant services are already … documenting the consequences of shelling. Do not neglect safety, stay in shelters during alarms!”

The British Defense Ministry has said the low-flying drones were unlikely to provide strike options deep into Ukrainian territory, and many were reportedly destroyed before they hit their targets.

Missiles and mortar blasting cities in the south and east of the country had become routine during the seven months since Russia’s invasion began, but Kyiv in north-central Ukraine had seen relative normalcy since March. That changed dramatically after an explosion on the Russian-built Crimean bridge Saturday curtailed vehicle and rail traffic – and embarrassed Putin’s government. Missiles rained down in cities across Ukraine in retaliatory strikes Monday.

The U.S. and its allies have pledged to strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses.

NATO chief warns Putin not to cross ‘very important’ nuclear line

Russian President Vladimir Putin would be crossing a “very important line” if he were to order the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned Thursday. NATO plans to hold its annual “Steadfast Noon” military deterrent exercises next week, and Russia is also planning nuclear exercises in coming days. Stoltenberg spoke after a meeting of NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, held during a conference of defense ministers in Brussels.

Concerns have deepened over Putin’s insistence that he will use any means necessary to defend what he considers to be Russian territory. The Kremlin, however, has dismissed talk of nuclear weapons as a tool of the West to justify the militarization of Ukraine.

Russia says it bombed 70 Ukrainian energy plants

The speaker of Russia’s lower parliament said more than 70 energy facilities in Ukraine were bombed in retaliation assaults this week. He threatened an “even tougher” response to future attacks by Ukraine, which has not claimed responsibility for the bridge bombing. Disruption of power could become crucial as winter rolls in across the battered country.

“All the organizers and perpetrators of the terrorist attacks must be found; those who resist must be destroyed,” State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin wrote on Telegram.

Ukraine gets $1.3 billion from IMF

The International Monetary Fund provided Ukraine $1.3 billion in additional emergency financing for “the budget’s priority needs,” Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Thursday. “Grateful to our partners for their unwavering support,” Shmyhal said on Twitter.

The IMF has given Ukraine $2.7 billion since the beginning of the Russian invasion. The fund will shortly begin work with Ukraine on “preparing a special new program that will start next year,” Shmyhal said.

Britain to provide missiles for US anti-aircraft systems

Britain said Thursday it will supply missiles for the advanced NASAM anti-aircraft systems the Pentagon plans to send to Ukraine. Britain’s also providing hundreds of additional aerial drones for information gathering and logistics support, plus 18 more howitzer artillery guns.

“These weapons will help Ukraine defend its skies from attacks and strengthen their overall missile defense alongside the U.S. NASAMS,” U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said.

Contributing: The Associated Press