By Nebi Qena And Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press
As Russian forces pull back from Ukraine’s capital region, retreating troops are creating a “catastrophic” situation for civilians by leaving mines around homes, abandoned equipment and “even the bodies of those killed,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Saturday.
Ukraine and its Western allies reported mounting evidence of Russia withdrawing its forces from around Kyiv and building its troop strength in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian fighters reclaimed several areas near the capital after forcing the Russians out or moving in after them, officials said.
The visible shift did not mean the country faced a reprieve from more than five weeks of war or that the more than 4 million refugees who have fled Ukraine will return soon. Zelenskyy said he expects departed towns to endure missile strikes and rocket strikes from afar and for the battle in the east to be intense.
“It’s still not possible to return to normal life, as it used to be, even at the territories that we are taking back after the fighting. We need wait until our land is demined, wait till we are able to assure you that there won’t be new shelling,” the president said during his nightly video address, though his claims about Russian mines couldn’t be independently verified.
Moscow’s focus on eastern Ukraine also kept the besieged southern city of Mariupol in the crosshairs. The port city on the Sea of Azoz is located in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for eight years. Military analysts think Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to capture the region after his forces failed to secure Kyiv and other major cities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross planned to try Saturday to get into Mariupol to evacuate residents. The Red Cross said it could not carry out the operation Friday because it did not receive assurances the route was safe. City authorities said the Russians blocked access to the city.
The humanitarian group said a team with three vehicles and nine Red Cross staff members was headed to Mariupol on Saturday to help facilitate the safe evacuation of civilians. It said its team planned to accompany a convoy of civilians from Mariupol to another city.
“Our presence will put a humanitarian marker on this planned movement of people, giving the convoy additional protection and reminding all sides of the civilian, humanitarian nature of the operation,” it said in a statement.
The Mariupol city council said Saturday that 10 empty buses were headed to Berdyansk, a city 84 kilometres (52.2 miles) west of Mariupol, to pick up people who manage to get there on their own. About 2,000 made it out of Mariupol on Friday, some on buses and some in their own vehicles, city officials said.
Evacuees boarded about 25 buses in Berdyansk and arrived around midnight to Zaporizhzhia, a city still under Ukrainian control that has served as the destination under previous cease-fires announced — and then broken — to get civilians out and aid into Mariupol.
Among them was Tamila Mazurenko, who said she fled Mariupol on Monday and made it to Berdyansk that night. Mazurenko said she waited for a bus until Friday, spending one night sleeping in a field.
“I have only one question: Why?” she said of her city’s ordeal. “We only lived as normal people. And our normal life was destroyed. And we lost everything. I don’t have any job, I can’t find my son.”
Mariupol, which was surrounded by Russian forces a month ago, has suffered some of the war’s worst attacks, including on a maternity hospital and a theatre that was sheltering civilians. Around 100,000 people are believed to remain in the city, down from a prewar population of 430,000, and they are facing dire shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
The city’s capture would give Moscow an unbroken land bridge from Russia to Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. But its resistance has also has taken on symbolic significance during Russia’s invasion, said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Ukrainian think-tank Penta.
“Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, and without its conquest, Putin cannot sit down at the negotiating table,” Fesenko said.
An adviser to Zelenskyy, Oleksiy Arestovych, said in an interview with Russian lawyer and activist Mark Feygin that Russia and Ukraine had reached an agreement to allow 45 buses to drive to Mariupol to evacuate residents “in coming days.”
About 500 refugees from eastern Ukraine, including 99 children and 12 people with disabilities, arrived in the Russian city of Kazan by train overnight. Asked if he saw a chance to return home, Mariupol resident Artur Kirillov answered, “That’s unlikely, there is no city anymore.”
Meanwhile, Pope Francis on Saturday blasted Russia for launching a “savage” war in Ukraine and said he was considering a trip to Kyiv. Francis, who was visiting Malta, said “some potentate” had unleashed the threat of nuclear war on the world in an “infantile and destructive aggression” under the guise of “anachronist claims of nationalistic interests.”
The pope didn’t mention Putin by name Saturday, but his subject was clear enough.
On the outskirts of Kyiv, signs of fierce fighting were everywhere in the wake of the Russian redeployment. Destroyed armoured vehicles from both armies left in streets and fields and scattered military gear covered the ground next to an abandoned Russian tank.
Ukrainian forces recaptured the city of Brovary, 20 kilometres east of the capital, Mayor Ihor Sapozhko said in a televised Friday night address. Shops were reopening and residents were returning but “still stand ready to defend” their city, he added.
“Russian occupants have now left practically all of the Brovary district,” Sapozhko said. “Tonight, (Ukrainian) armed forces will work to clear settlements of (remaining) occupants, military hardware, and possibly from mines.”
A prominent Ukrainian photojournalist who went missing last month in a combat zone near the capital was found dead Friday in the Huta Mezhyhirska village north of Kyiv, the country’s prosecutor general’s office announced. Levin, 40, worked as a photojournalist and videographer for many Ukrainian and international publications.
The prosecutor general’s office attributed his death to two gunshots allegedly fired by the Russian military, and it said an investigation was underway.
Elsewhere, at least three Russian ballistic missiles were fired late Friday at the Odesa region on the Black Sea, regional leader Maksim Marchenko said. The Ukrainian military said the Iskander missiles did not hit the critical infrastructure they targeted in Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port and the headquarters of its navy.
Ukraine’s state nuclear agency reported a series of blasts Saturday that injured four people in Enerhodar, a city in southeastern Ukraine that has been under Russian control since early March along with the nearby Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
Ukrainian officials also reported that the death toll from a Russian rocket strike Tuesday on a government building in Mykolaiv, a port city east of Odesa, had risen to 33, with a further 34 people wounded. The confirmed death toll has risen steadily as the search and rescue operation continues.
As the war dragged on, the U.S. Defense Department said Friday night it is providing an additional $300 million in arms to Ukrainian forces, including laser-guided rocket systems, unmanned aircraft, armoured vehicles, night vision devices and ammunition. Also included are medical supplies, field equipment and spare parts.
There was no immediate word Saturday on the latest round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, which took place Friday by video. During a round of talks earlier in the week, Ukraine said it would be willing to abandon a bid to join NATO and declare itself neutral — Moscow’s chief demand — in return for security guarantees from several other countries.
On Friday, the Kremlin accused Ukraine of launching a helicopter attack on a fuel depot on Russian soil.
Ukraine denied responsibility for the fiery blast at the civilian oil storage facility on the outskirts of the city of Belgorod, about 25 kilometres (16 miles) from the Ukraine border. If Moscow’s claim is confirmed, it would be the war’s first known attack in which Ukrainian aircraft penetrated Russian airspace.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said on Ukrainian television: “For some reason, they say that we did it, but in fact, this does not correspond with reality.” Later, in an interview with American TV channel Fox News, Zelenskyy refused to say whether Ukraine was behind the attack.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Irpin, Ukraine, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Feature image via The Associated Press