Russia's foreign ministry behind a billboard with the 'Z' emblem of Russian troops in Ukraine captioned 'Victory is forged in fire'

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine said Thursday it had reset its power grid after mass Russian strikes on energy facilities as Turkey held back on an expected offer to mediate talks between Moscow and Kyiv.

And in a sign that Ukraine’s counter-offensive was advancing in the south, the Moscow-installed head of the Kherson region under Russia’s control asked Moscow for help to evacuate civilians from the area.

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended Ankara’s booming trade ties with Moscow during an in-person meeting with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a summit of regional leaders in Kazakhstan.

But Erdogan did not deliver an offer to mediate negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv – expected by the Kremlin – and comments between the leaders made no mention of Ukraine and focussed instead on economic ties.

Putin during the meeting proposed to create a “gas hub” in Turkey as Russia’s supplies to Europe have been disrupted by Ukraine-related sanctions.

NATO member Turkey has sought to retain dialogue with its Western allies as well as Moscow, and has not joined sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

War in Ukraine: the situation on October 13

Erdogan also refrained from commenting on mass Russian strikes on Ukraine earlier this week that mostly targeted energy infrastructure and left at least 20 dead.

The attacks caused power and hot water cuts across the country, but the head of Ukraine’s energy operator Ukrenergo said Thursday that the power grid had “stabilised”, reassuring users emergency power cuts would be unneccessary.

- Rebels push to Bakhmut -

On the battlefield, Russian-backed separatist forces in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine said they had captured two villages near the industrial city of Bakhmut, posting small gains against Kyiv’s counteroffensive.

“A group of DNR and LNR troops – with fire support from the Russian Armed Forces – liberated Opytne and Ivangrad,” a statement released by separatist authorities said on Telegram, using acronyms for the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics.

The villages are located just south of Bakhmut, a wine-making and salt-mining city that used to be populated by some 70,000 people and which Russian forces have been pummelling for weeks to capture.

Relatives and servicemen attend the funeral in Kyiv of a Georgian volunteer fighter who died in combat in Ukraine

The reported gains after Ukrainian troops had for weeks been clawing back large swathes of territory in the south and east of Ukraine – including Donetsk – controlled by Russian forces for months.

The Ukrainian military countered in an update that it had repelled attacks near several frontline villages.

- Boy pulled from rubble -

Ukraine troops told AFP this week near the frontline south of Bakhmut that they were still outgunned by Russian artillery on their section of the frontline. Russian supply lines from the part of Donetsk occupied since 2014 are still intact.

AFP reporters in Yampil just outside the recently liberated town of Lyman on Thursday heard heavy exchanges of artillery fire to the southeast.

A Ukrainian soldier returning from the frontline said that positions in the village of Torske were under fire from Russian guns guided by spotter drones.

In the southern Kherson region, that Russia has claimed to have annexed, Ukraine forces have been clawing back territory for weeks.

The Moscow-appointed leader Vladimir Saldo suggested to residents that they “leave to other regions to protect themselves from missile strikes”.

Saldo said the region was being hit by an increasing number of rocket attacks that were causing “serious damage” and asked Russia to help organise the evacuations.

Also in the south, where Ukrainian forces have also announced sweeping gains over recent weeks, the town of Mykolaiv was again rocked by Russian bombardments.

The head of the city Oleksandr Sienkevych said on social media that a five-story residential building was hit, with two upper floors destroyed completely.

“An 11-year-old boy was recovered from under the rubble and another seven people may still be there,” he said, adding a security guard was killed at a sea rescue station.