Zelensky alleges Russian troops leaving booby traps behind as Ukraine regains area near Kyiv
Warning: This story contains an image of a dead body
Ukrainian troops moved cautiously to retake territory north of the country's capital on Saturday, using cables to pull the bodies of civilians off the streets in one town out of fear that Russian forces might have left them booby-trapped.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in his nightly video address hours earlier that departing Russian troops were creating a "catastrophic" situation for civilians by leaving mines around homes, abandoned equipment and "even the bodies of those killed." His claims could not be independently verified.
Ukraine's emergencies service said more than 1,500 explosives had been found in one day during a search of the village of Dmytrivka, west of Kyiv.
Russia's defence ministry did not reply to a request for comment on the mining allegations, which could not be independently verified.
Associated Press journalists in Bucha, a suburb northwest of Kyiv, watched on Saturday as Ukrainian soldiers — backed by a column of tanks and other armoured vehicles — used cables to drag bodies off of a street from a distance, fearing they might have been rigged to explode. Locals said the dead — the AP counted at least six — were civilians who were killed by departing Russian soldiers without provocation.
Reuters journalists also reached Bucha and captured images of a still-open mass grave in the grounds of a church, with hands and feet poking through the red clay heaped on top.
Bucha's mayor, Anatoliy Fedoruk, said more than 300 residents had been killed.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she was appalled by atrocities in Bucha and voiced support for the International Criminal Court's inquiry into potential war crimes in Ukraine.
Russia denies targeting civilians and rejects war crimes allegations.
Russians withdrawing from Kyiv region
Since sending troops on Feb. 24 in what it calls a "special operation" to demilitarize its neighbour, Russia has failed to capture a single major city and has instead laid siege to urban areas, uprooting a quarter of Ukraine's population
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.
Russia has depicted its drawdown of forces near Kyiv as a goodwill gesture in peace talks. Ukraine and its allies say Russia was forced to shift its focus to east Ukraine after suffering heavy losses near Kyiv.
The visible shift did not mean the country faced a reprieve from more than five weeks of war or that the more than four million refugees who have fled Ukraine will return soon. Zelensky said he expects departed towns to endure missile strikes and rocket strikes from afar and for the battle in the east to be intense.
In his nightly video address Saturday, the Ukrainian leader said the country's troops were not allowing the Russians to retreat without a fight. "They are shelling them. They are destroying everyone they can," he said.
Russia, Zelensky said, has ample forces to put more pressure on Ukraine's east and south.
"What is the goal of the Russian troops? They want to seize the Donbas and the south of Ukraine," he said. "What is our goal? To defend ourselves, our freedom, our land and our people."
Earlier on Saturday, the head of Ukraine's delegation in talks with Russia said Moscow's negotiators informally agreed to most of a draft proposal discussed during face-to-face talks in Istanbul this week, but no written confirmation has been provided.
However, Davyd Arakhamia said on Ukrainian TV that he hopes that draft is developed enough so that the two countries' presidents can meet to discuss it.
Moscow's focus on Eastern Ukraine also kept the besieged southern city of Mariupol in the crosshairs. The port city on the Sea of Azov 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 had hoped to evacuate Mariupol residents from the city on Saturday but had not yet reached the city. A day earlier, local authorities said the Red Cross was blocked by Russian forces.
An adviser to Zelensky, 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."
The Mariupol city council said earlier Saturday that 10 empty buses were headed to Berdyansk, a city 84 kilometres west of Mariupol, to pick up people who managed 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.
Mariupol has been surrounded by Russian forces for more than a month and 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 pre-war population of 430,000, and they face dire shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
Zelensky said a significant number of Russian troops were tied up in Mariupol, giving Ukraine "invaluable time ... that is allowing us to foil the enemy's tactics and weaken its capabilities."
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.
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."
Cities under attack
In towns and cities surrounding Kyiv, signs of fierce fighting were everywhere in the wake of the Russian redeployment. Destroyed armoured vehicles from both armies are left in streets and fields along with scattered military gear.
Ukrainian troops were stationed at the entrance to Antonov Airport in suburb of Hostomel, demonstrating control of the runway that Russia tried to storm in the first days of the war.
Inside the compound, the Mriya, one of the biggest planes ever built, lay wrecked underneath a hangar pock-marked with holes from the February Russian attack.
"The Russians couldn't make one like it so they destroyed it," said Oleksandr Merkushev, mayor of the Kyiv suburb of Irpin.
Irpin has seen some of the fiercest battles of the war, and Merkushev said the Russian troops "left behind them many bodies, many destroyed buildings and they mined many places."
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 on 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. Ukraine's human rights ombudsman said on the Telegram instant messaging service that the four were badly burned when Russian troops fired light and noise grenades and mortars at a pro-Ukraine demonstration.
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 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.
With files from Reuters