Ukrainian forces retake areas near Kyiv for fear of traps

Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Ukrainian troops cautiously advanced on Saturday to retake territory north of the country’s capital, using cables to drag the bodies of civilians off the streets in a town over fears that Russian forces would seize them would have booby-trapped before leaving.

Hours earlier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned in his nightly video address that withdrawing Russian troops would create a “catastrophic” situation for civilians, leaving behind mines around houses, abandoned equipment and “even the bodies of those killed.”

Associated Press journalists in Bucha, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, watched on Saturday as Ukrainian soldiers, supported by a column of tanks and other armored vehicles, used cables to remotely drag bodies off a road, fearing they could have been detonated. Locals said the dead — the AP counted at least six — were civilians killed without provocation by retreating Russian soldiers.

Ukraine and its western allies reported mounting evidence that Russia is withdrawing its forces from the Kyiv area and building up its troop levels in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian fighters retook several areas near the capital after driving out or following in the footsteps of the Russians, officials said.

The visible shift did not mean that the country faced more than five weeks of respite from war or that the more than 4 million refugees who fled Ukraine will soon return. Zelenskyi said he expected deserted cities to endure rocket attacks and missile strikes from afar, and that fighting in the east would be intense.

“A return to normal life as before is still not possible, even in the areas we are retaking after the fighting. We have to wait until our country is demined, wait until we can assure you there will be no more shelling,” the president said during his late-night video address, though his claims about Russian mines could not be independently verified.

Moscow’s focus on eastern Ukraine also kept the besieged southern city of Mariupol in its crosshairs. The port city on the Azoz Sea is in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass region, where Russian-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian troops for eight years. Military analysts believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to conquer the region after his forces failed to secure Kyiv and other major cities.

The International Committee of the Red Cross planned to try to get to Mariupol on Saturday to evacuate residents. The Red Cross said it could not perform the operation Friday because it had not received assurances the route was safe. City authorities said the Russians blocked access to the city.

The humanitarian group said a team of three vehicles and nine Red Cross workers drove to Mariupol on Saturday to facilitate the safe evacuation of civilians. It said its team was planning to escort a convoy of civilians from Mariupol to another city.

“Our presence will provide a humanitarian signal to this planned movement of people, provide additional protection for the convoy and remind all sides of the civilian, humanitarian nature of the operation,” the statement said.

Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Iryna Vereshchuk said that 765 residents of Mariupol reached Zaporizhia in private vehicles on Saturday.

The Mariupol City Council said earlier Saturday that 10 empty buses were heading to Berdyansk, a town 84 kilometers (52.2 miles) west of Mariupol, to pick up people who had managed to get there on their own. About 2,000 people 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 in Zaporizhzhia, a city still under Ukrainian control and used as the target of previous ceasefires announced — and then broken — to pull civilians out and head towards Mariupol help.

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 and slept in a field one night.

“I just have one question: why?” she said of her city’s ordeal. “We just lived as 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, which was surrounded by Russian forces a month ago, has suffered some of the worst attacks of the war, including on a maternity hospital and a theater housing civilians. Around 100,000 people are believed to remain in the city, down from a pre-war population of 430,000, and they are facing acute shortages of water, food, fuel and medicines.

The city’s capture would give Moscow an uninterrupted land bridge from Russia to Crimea, which it had seized from Ukraine in 2014. But his resistance has also acquired symbolic importance during the Russian invasion, said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Ukrainian think tank Penta.

“Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, and without capturing it, Putin cannot sit down at the negotiating table,” Fesenko said.

An adviser to Zelenskyi, 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 go to Mariupol to evacuate residents “in the coming days”. .

About 500 refugees from eastern Ukraine, including 99 children and 12 people with disabilities, arrived overnight by train in the Russian city of Kazan. When asked if he sees a chance to return home, Artur Kirillov from Mariupol replied: “It’s unlikely, there’s no city left.”

Signs of fierce fighting were everywhere on the outskirts of Kyiv after the Russian transfer. Destroyed armored vehicles from both armies, abandoned on roads and fields, and scattered military equipment littered the ground next to an abandoned Russian tank.

Ukrainian troops have recaptured the town of Brovary, some 20 kilometers east of the capital, Mayor Ihor Sapozhko said on Friday evening. Businesses reopened and residents returned, but “still stand ready to defend their city,” he added.

A prominent Ukrainian photojournalist who went missing from a combat zone near the capital last month 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 ongoing.

Elsewhere, at least three Russian ballistic missiles were fired at the Black Sea region of Odessa late Friday, regional leader Maksim Marchenko said. Ukraine’s military said the Iskander missiles failed to hit the critical infrastructure they targeted in Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port and the headquarters of its navy.

Ukraine’s state nuclear agency on Saturday reported a series of blasts that injured four people in Enerhodar, a city in southeastern Ukraine that has been under Russian control along with the nearby Zaporizhia nuclear power plant since early March. Ukraine’s Ombudsman for Human Rights said on Telegram that the four were badly burned when Russian troops fired light and noisy shells and mortars at a pro-Ukrainian demonstration.

There was no immediate word on Saturday about the latest round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, which took place via video on Friday. During a round of talks earlier this week, Ukraine said it was willing to renounce NATO membership and declare itself neutral – Moscow’s main demand – in exchange 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 has denied responsibility for the fire blast at the civilian oil storage facility on the outskirts of the city of Belgorod, some 25 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. If confirmed, Moscow’s claim would be the first known attack of the war in which Ukrainian aircraft entered Russian airspace.

Karmanau reported from Lemberg, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Irpin, Ukraine, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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