Too soon to declare that Ukraine's Kherson is in Russian hands, says U.S. official

WASHINGTON, March 3 (Reuters) - The United States believes that Russian forces have not yet taken over the Ukrainian city of Kherson, but could use it as part of a strategy for potentially moving to Mykolaiv and then onto Odessa, a senior U.S. defense official said on Thursday.

Tanks entered the port town of Kherson, a provincial capital of around 250,000 people, and Russian forces occupied the regional administration building, regional governor Hennadiy Laguta said in an online post on Thursday. read more

"There's still fighting there, so we're not ready to call it one way or another," the U.S. official told reporters, adding that the situation on the ground was changing quickly.

If Kherson were to be captured, it would be the first significant urban center to fall into the hands of Russian troops.

"What they may want to do is move on (Mykolaiv) so that they can then position themselves to the northeast of Odessa in case, in fact, they want to move on Odessa, not just from the sea, but from the ground," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The invasion, which started eight days ago, has not seen Russian aircraft control Ukraine's airspace. Russian troops are still stalled about 25 km (16 miles) outside Kyiv's city center.

The official said that Russia had moved about 90% of its pre-staged combat power into Ukraine so far and about 480 missiles had been fired by Russian forces at Ukrainian targets.

U.S. intelligence satellite imagery had been impacted by poor weather over Ukraine, the official said. On Monday, publicly available satellite images showed a Russian military convoy north of Kyiv stretching for about 64 km (40 miles).

A majority of Russian missile launches had come from inside of Ukraine as Russia moved in mobile systems, the official said, adding that the United States could still not confirm the presence or use of thermobaric weapons in Ukraine.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace earlier on Thursday said Putin had deployed thermobaric weapons systems in Ukraine. read more

The U.S. official said: "We know that they have the launching systems available to them in Ukraine that could be used for rockets that have a thermobaric warhead on them. But we cannot confirm that those weapons are in Ukraine and we cannot confirm any examples of use."

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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Thomson Reuters

National security correspondent focusing on the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Reports on U.S. military activity and operations throughout the world and the impact that they have. Has reported from over two dozen countries to include Iraq, Afghanistan, and much of the Middle East, Asia and Europe. From Karachi, Pakistan.

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Phil Stewart has reported from more than 60 countries, including Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and South Sudan. An award-winning Washington-based national security reporter, Phil has appeared on NPR, PBS NewsHour, Fox News and other programs and moderated national security events, including at the Reagan National Defense Forum and the German Marshall Fund. He is a recipient of the Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence and the Joe Galloway Award.