Zelenskyy says Ukrainian flag flies in Lyman again, as Russia pulls troops from city

After being encircled by Ukrainian forces, Russia pulled troops out Saturday from an eastern Ukrainian city that it had been using as a front-line hub. It was the latest victory for the Ukrainian counteroffensive that has humiliated and angered the Kremlin.

Ukraine's ongoing counteroffensive against invading Russian forces has angered Moscow

This image taken from social media video and released Saturday shows members Ukrainian armed forces members standing front of the Lyman Town Administration office with a Donetsk People's Republic flag on the ground. (81 Airborne Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces/Reuters)

After being encircled by Ukrainian forces, Russia pulled troops out Saturday from an eastern Ukrainian city that it had been using as a front-line hub. It was the latest victory for the Ukrainian counteroffensive that has humiliated and angered the Kremlin.

Russia's withdrawal from Lyman complicates its internationally vilified declaration, just a day earlier, that it had annexed four regions of Ukraine — an area that includes Lyman.

Taking the city paves the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push further into land that Moscow now illegally claims as its own.

"The Ukrainian flag is already in Lyman, Donetsk region. Fighting is still going on there. But there is no trace of any pseudo-referendum there," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Saturday.

He was referring to "referendums" that Russia held at gunpoint in the four regions before annexing them — Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

A Ukrainian truck tows a captured Russian vehicle on a road near Izium, Ukraine, on Saturday. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

The fighting comes at a pivotal moment in Russian President Vladimir Putin's war. Facing Ukrainian gains on the battlefield — which he frames as a U.S.-orchestrated effort to destroy Russia — Putin this week heightened threats of nuclear force and used his most aggressive, anti-Western rhetoric to date.

Russia's Defence Ministry claimed to have inflicted damage on Ukrainian forces in battling to hold Lyman, but said outnumbered Russian troops were withdrawn to more favourable positions. Kyiv's air force said it moved into Lyman, and Zelenskyy's chief of staff posted photos of a Ukrainian flag being hoisted on the town's outskirts.

Lyman had been an important link in the Russian front line for both ground communications and logistics. Located 160 kilometres southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, it is in the Donetsk region near the border with Luhansk region, two area Russia annexed Friday.

A damaged church property is seen in the town of Sviatohirsk, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, on Saturday. (Vladyslav Musiienko/Reuters)

Ukrainian forces have retaken vast swaths of territory in a counteroffensive that started in September. They have pushed Russian forces out of the Kharkiv area and moved east across the Oskil River.

'More drastic measures'

Moscow's withdrawal from Lyman prompted immediate criticism from some Russian officials.

The leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, blamed the retreat, without evidence, on one general being "covered up for by higher-up leaders in the general staff." He called for "more drastic measures."

Meanwhile, on the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula, the governor of the city of Sevastopol announced an emergency situation at an airfield there. Explosions and huge billows of smoke could be seen by beachgoers in the Russian-held resort. Authorities said a plane rolled off the runway at the Belbek airfield, and ammunition on board caught fire.

WATCH | In retaking Lyman, Ukrainian forces win back key hub: 

Ukrainian forces retake key eastern city of Lyman from Russians

4 months ago
Duration 2:02
Ukrainian forces have retaken the eastern city of Lyman just a day after Russia annexed the region. A key logistics and supply hub, the city’s capture is seen as a possible step to retaking the entire Donbas.

Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 in violation of international law.

Russian bombardments have intensified in recent days as Moscow moved swiftly with its latest annexation and ordered a mass mobilization at home to bolster its forces. The Russian call-up has proven unpopular at home, prompting tens of thousands of Russian men to flee the country.

Zelenskyy and his military have vowed to keep fighting to liberate the regions Putin claimed to have annexed Friday, and other Russian-occupied areas.

Humanitarian convoys targeted: Ukraine

Ukrainian authorities accused Russian forces of targeting two humanitarian convoys in recent days, killing dozens of civilians.

Ukrainian soldiers are seen moving along a street in Bakhmut, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, on Saturday. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

The governor of the Kharkiv region, Oleh Syniehubov, said 24 civilians were killed in an attack this week on a convoy trying to flee the Kupiansk district. He called it "cruelty that can't be justified." He said 13 children and a pregnant woman were among the dead.

"The Russians fired at civilians almost at point-blank range," Syniehubov wrote on Telegram.

The Security Service of Ukraine, the secret police force known by the acronym SBU, posted photographs of the attacked convoy.

At least one truck appeared to have been blown up, with burned corpses in what remained of its truck bed. Another vehicle at the front of the convoy was torched. Bodies lay on the side of the road or still inside vehicles that were pockmarked with bullet holes.

Russia's Defence Ministry said its rockets destroyed Ukrainian military targets in the area but has not commented on accusations that it targeted fleeing civilians. Russian troops have retreated from much of the Kharkiv region but continue to shell the area.

And a Russian strike in the Zaporizhzhia region's capital killed 31 people and wounded 88, Ukrainian officials said. The British Defence Ministry said the Russians "almost certainly" struck a humanitarian convoy there with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces, but gave no evidence.

Head of nuclear plant seized

In other developments, in an apparent attempt to secure Moscow's hold on the newly annexed territory, Russian forces seized the director-general of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Ihor Murashov, on Friday, according to the Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom.

Energoatom said Russian troops stopped Murashov's car, blindfolded him and took him to an undisclosed location.

People walk past banners displayed in front of the the city council building reading the name Ukraine in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on Saturday. Ukrainian officials in the region have declared a day of mourning for the civilians who were killed following the Russia missile strike on a car convoy on the outskirts of the city. (Leo Correa/The Associated Press)

Russia did not comment on the report. The International Atomic Energy Agency said Russia told it that "the director-general of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was temporarily detained to answer questions."

The Vienna-based IAEA said it "has been actively seeking clarifications and hopes for a prompt and satisfactory resolution of this matter."

The power plant repeatedly has been caught in the crossfire of the war. Ukrainian technicians continued running it after Russian troops seized the power station, and its last reactor was shut down in September as a precautionary measure amid ongoing shelling nearby.

4 dead in Donetsk region

In other fighting reported Saturday, four people were killed by Russian shelling Friday in the Donetsk region, governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

Employees work at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in this picture released Sept. 2 by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Ukrainian state nuclear company Energoatom says Russia has seized the head of the power plant. (IAEA/Reuters)

The Russian army struck the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv twice overnight, once with drones and the second time with missiles, according to regional Gov. Vitaliy Kim.

After Friday's land grab, Russia now claims sovereignty over 15 per cent of Ukraine, in what NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called "the largest attempted annexation of European territory by force since the Second World War."