By Anna Voitenko and Alina Smutko

TORETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – In the devastated eastern Ukrainian town of Toretsk, time is running out for anyone wanting to leave.

Russian forces are advancing slowly but surely, pummelling the town night and day with rockets, artillery fire and air attacks, part of a broad advance in the Donetsk region that Ukraine has been unable to stop.

Piles of rubble lie where buildings once stood, burned out apartment blocks have become unliveable, a church tower has fallen and plumes of smoke rise in the near distance from incoming shells.

In a residential courtyard a group of mainly elderly residents gather to listen to Ivan, a police officer in camouflage fatigues who is trying to convince them to leave Toretsk with his evacuation team.

Hundreds of officers like him and Ukrainian volunteers are trying to do the same in towns and villages along the frontline before they are reduced to rubble and subsumed into territory held by the Russians.

“Are you all staying?” he asked, speaking firmly and quickly. “Can you not see how the situation is changing? If you think you will sit it out – this is not going to happen.”

His offer has been taken up by some and turned down by others. Many people who remain do not want to leave for an uncertain life in safer parts of Ukraine. Others refuse to be separated from elderly relatives and friends.

“It is just me that is left, everyone else is buried,” said Valentyna, a former school headmistress who gave only her first name. “Planes are flying in every night and attacking, especially the last two days,” added the 75-year-old, crying.

‘ALL COVERED IN BLOOD’

A woman next to her shouted: “God has given us earth and sky, and they (the Russians) trampled all over it, covered it in blood. It is all covered in blood. And the young boys…”

Some 5,000 people remain in Toretsk, according to Tetyana Nikonova, a representative of the local military administration, speaking as residents wanting to evacuate gathered around minivans with a few personal belongings.

That compares with an estimated population of some 35,000 a decade ago.

“Many people refuse to leave. We talk to them, the boys try to convince them, but they do not want to go,” she said. “We offer them all that we can, accommodation, transport, all for free, but people hide in basements.”

Oleksandr is going to evacuate, but before he does he and members of the police force release the chickens from their coop in his yard and a dog and goats off their leashes.

Valentyna Natyazhko, 88, fled Toretsk earlier, but is back briefly to collect the refrigerator from her apartment because she needs it in her new home in the nearby town of Kostiantynivka.

“All the food got spoiled there, I had to throw away sausage, mayonnaise, butter,” she said. “I came to take this fridge. Fridges are expensive, where will I get money to buy one?”

Sergiy and Iryna, a couple sitting together on a bench outside their apartment, discussed whether or not to leave. Police officers told them to be at the same place the following morning to be collected if they decided to go.

“I worry we will not be able to come back, no one will let us back here,” said Sergiy, 65.

“But we will leave, Sergiy Yuriyevych, won’t we?” asked Iryna in tears, turning to him and touching his hand.

“We’ll leave,” he sighed. We’ll leave.”

(Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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