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On Saturday, Ukrainian troops moved cautiously to retake territory north of the country’s capital, using cables to remove the bodies of civilians from the streets of a town for fear Russian forces had trapped them before leaving.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned in his nightly video address hours earlier that the departure of Russian troops was creating a “catastrophic” situation for civilians by leaving mines around houses, abandoned equipment and “even the bodies of those killed “. His claims could not be independently verified.
Associated Press reporters in Bucha, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, watched on Saturday as Ukrainian soldiers backed by a column of tanks and other armored vehicles used cables to pull bodies off a street in distance, fearing that they were rigged to explode. Residents said the dead – the AP counted at least six – were civilians who were killed by Russian soldiers initially without provocation.
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“These people were just walking and they shot them for no reason. Bang,” said a Bucha resident who declined to be named for security reasons. “In the neighboring district, Stekolka, it was even worse. They were shooting without asking questions.”
Ukraine and its Western allies have reported mounting evidence that Russia is withdrawing its forces around kyiv and building up its numbers in eastern Ukraine.
This visible change did not mean that the country was facing a reprieve from more than five weeks of war or that the more than 4 million refugees who fled Ukraine would soon return. Zelenskyy said he expects the missing towns to come under missile and rocket strikes from afar and the battle in the east to be intense.
“It is still not possible to return to normal life, as before, even in the territories that we take back after the fighting,” the president said.
Moscow’s focus on eastern Ukraine has also kept the beleaguered southeastern city of Mariupol in the crosshairs. The port city on the Sea of Azov is located in the predominantly Russian-speaking region of Donbass, where Russian-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for eight years. Military analysts believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to take over the region after his forces failed to secure kyiv and other major cities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross planned to try to enter Mariupol on Saturday to evacuate residents after calling off the operation on Friday when it did not receive assurances the route was safe. City authorities said the Russians had blocked access to the city. It was not known on Saturday evening if the Red Cross had succeeded in reaching Mariupol.
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An adviser to Zelenskyy, Oleksiy Arestovych, said in an interview with Russian lawyer and activist Mark Feygin that Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement to allow 45 buses to go to Mariupol to evacuate residents “in the next days”.
The Mariupol City Council said earlier on Saturday that 10 empty buses were heading to Berdyansk, a town 84 kilometers (52.2 miles) west of Mariupol, to pick up people who managed to get there on their own. About 2,000 people walked out of Mariupol on Friday, some on buses and others in their own vehicles, city officials said.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 765 residents of Mariupol used private vehicles on Saturday to reach Zaporizhzhia, a town still under Ukrainian control that served as the destination for other planned evacuations.
Among those who fled the city was Tamila Mazurenko, who said she fled Mariupol on Monday, traveled to Berdyansk that night and then took a bus to Zaporizhzhia. Mazurenko said she waited for a bus until Friday, spending a night sleeping in a field.
“I only have one question: why? she said of her city’s ordeal. “We were just living like normal people. And our normal life was destroyed. And we lost everything. I don’t have a job, I can’t find my son.”
Mariupol, surrounded by Russian forces for more than a month, suffered some of the worst attacks of the war, including against a maternity hospital and a theater that housed civilians. Around 100,000 people are thought to remain in the city, down from a pre-war population of 430,000, and they face severe shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
Capturing the city would give Moscow an unbroken land bridge between Russia and Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. But its resistance also took on symbolic meaning during the Russian invasion, Volodymyr said Fesenko, head of Ukrainian think tank Penta.
“Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, and without its conquest, Putin cannot sit at the negotiating table,” Fesenko said.
Around 500 refugees from eastern Ukraine, including 99 children and 12 disabled people, arrived in the Russian city of Kazan by train overnight. When asked if he saw a chance to return home, Artur Kirillov, a resident of Mariupol, replied: “It’s unlikely, there is no more city.”
In towns and villages surrounding kyiv, signs of fierce fighting were everywhere following the Russian redeployment. Destroyed armored vehicles of both armies are left in the streets and fields with scattered military equipment.
Ukrainian troops were stationed at the entrance to Antonov airport in the suburb of Hostomel, demonstrating control of the runway that Russia tried to storm in the early days of the war.
Inside the compound, the Mriya, one of the largest planes ever built, lay destroyed under a hangar scarred with holes from the Russian attack in February.
“The Russians couldn’t make one like this, so they destroyed it,” said Oleksandr Merkushev, mayor of Kyiv suburb Irpin.
Irpin saw some of the fiercest battles of the war, and Merkushev said Russian troops “left behind many bodies, many destroyed buildings, and mined many places.”
A leading Ukrainian photojournalist, who went missing last month in a combat zone near the capital, was found dead on Friday in the village of Huta Mezhyhirska, north of Kyiv, the country’s prosecutor general’s office said. Maks Levin, 40, has worked as a photojournalist and videographer for many Ukrainian and international publications.
The attorney general’s office attributed his death to two shots allegedly fired by the Russian military, and said an investigation was underway.
Elsewhere, at least three Russian ballistic missiles were fired at the Odessa region on the Black Sea on Friday evening, regional chief Maksim Marchenko said. Ukraine’s military said the Iskander missiles failed to hit the critical infrastructure they were targeting in Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port and the headquarters of its navy.
Ukraine’s state nuclear agency reported a series of explosions on Saturday that injured four people in Enerhodar, a city in southeastern Ukraine that has been under Russian control since early March, as well as the nearby nuclear power plant of Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman said on Telegram that the four were badly burned when Russian troops fired sound and light grenades and mortars at a pro-Ukrainian protest.
The head of Ukraine’s delegation in talks with Russia says Moscow negotiators informally agreed to most of a draft proposal discussed in face-to-face talks in Istanbul this week, but no written confirmation has been forthcoming. has been provided. However, Davyd Arakhamia told Ukrainian television that he hoped the project would be developed enough for the presidents of the two countries to meet to discuss it.
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On Friday, the Kremlin accused Ukraine of launching a helicopter attack on a fuel depot on Russian soil.
Ukraine has denied responsibility for the fire explosion at the civilian oil storage facility on the outskirts of the city of Belgorod, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Ukrainian border. If Moscow’s claim is confirmed, it would be the first known attack of the war in which Ukrainian aircraft entered Russian airspace.