Ukraine says troops closing in on key Russian-held stronghold of Lyman

FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Zelenskiy addresses Ukrainians about prisoners of war (POWs) swap, in Kyiv

LONDON (Reuters) -Ukrainian troops have captured two villages that lie very close to the eastern Russian-occupied stronghold of Lyman, officials said on Friday, in the clearest sign yet the town could soon fall.

Lyman, in the Donetsk region, has served for months as a logistics and transport hub anchoring Russian operations in the north of the region.

Its capture would be Kyiv's biggest gain since a lightning counter-offensive retook swathes of Kharkiv region this month.

In an evening video address, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked troops for capturing the village of Yampil, around 12 km (7.5 miles) southeast of Lyman.

Earlier in the day, Ukraine's defence ministry said its troops had captured Drobysheve, some 10 km (6 miles) to the northwest of Lyman.

"We have significant results in the east of our country ... everyone has heard what is happening in Lyman," Zelenskiy said in a video address.

"These are steps that mean a lot to us," he added, but did not give details.

The head of the Russian-backed administration in the Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin, said earlier on Friday that Lyman was "semi-encircled" by the Ukrainian army and that news from the front was "alarming".

In a message posted on Telegram, Pushilin admitted his forces no longer fully controlled either Drobysheve or Yampil.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed Russian rule over Donetsk and three other provinces where Moscow has seized territory during its seven-month long invasion of its neighbour. The annexations have been roundly rejected by Ukraine and its Western allies as illegal and was condemned by the United Nations chief.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by David Ljunggren, Grant McCool and Bill Berkrot)