Ukraine’s Defense Ministry says its forces have taken control of the Kyiv region from Russian troops as officials warned that the departing soldiers were creating a “catastrophic” situation for civilians by leaving mines.
The announcement on Saturday is the first time Ukraine has claimed control of the capital region since Russia launched its invasion on 24 February.
“The entire Kyiv region has been liberated from the attacker,” Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar wrote on Facebook.
There were no immediate Russian comments on the allegation.
In all, Ukrainian troops have recaptured more than 30 towns and villages around Kiev, according to officials. The recaptured cities bore scars after five weeks of fighting, with destroyed armored vehicles, military equipment and dozens of corpses lying scattered across the streets.
In Bucha, a city northwest of the capital, Ukrainian soldiers used cables to pull the bodies of civilians off the streets for fear that Russian forces might have left them trapped.
Bucha Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said authorities there had buried 280 people in a mass grave, saying the victims included women as well as a 14-year-old boy.
“All these people were shot, killed in the back of the head,” Fedoruk said.
On a street in Bucha, AFP reported seeing at least 20 bodies, including one with his hands tied.
An open Ukrainian passport lay on the ground next to him, while two other people had a white cloth tied around their upper arms.
AFP said everyone was wearing civilian clothes – winter coats, jackets or tracksuits, jeans or sweatpants and trainers or boots.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she was shocked by the atrocities in Bucha and expressed support for the International Criminal Court’s investigation into potential war crimes in Ukraine.
Russia denies attacking civilians and denies allegations of war crimes.
Since Russia sent troops into Ukraine in what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarize its neighbor, Russia has failed to conquer a single major city and has instead besieged urban areas and uprooted a quarter of Ukraine’s population.
Ukraine’s armed forces reported a drop in Russian air and missile strikes on Saturday, but said Russian troops withdrawing from near Kiev were in the process of deploying mines.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned in a video speech: “They are mining all this territory. Houses are being mined, equipment is being mined, even the bodies of dead people.”
He did not cite evidence.
Ukraine’s emergency services said more than 1,500 explosives had been found in one day during a search of the village of Dmytrivka, west of Kiev.
Russia’s Defense Ministry did not respond to a request from the Reuters news agency for comment on the mine allegations.
Russia has portrayed its withdrawal of forces near Kiev as a goodwill gesture in peace talks. Ukraine and its allies say Russia was forced to shift its focus to eastern Ukraine after suffering heavy losses near Kiev.
However, the shift does not mean that the country is facing a postponement after more than five weeks of war, or that the more than 4 million refugees who have fled Ukraine will soon return.
Zelenskyy said he expects the cities from which Russian forces withdrew to endure missile and rocket attacks from afar, and that the fighting in the east will be intense.
In his nightly video speech Saturday, the Ukrainian leader said the country’s troops did not allow the Russians to withdraw without a fight: “They are shelling them. They are destroying everyone they can.”
Russia, Zelenskyy said, has ample power to put more pressure on Ukraine’s east and south.
“What is the goal of the Russian troops? They want to conquer the Donbas and southern Ukraine,” he said. “What is our goal? To defend ourselves, our freedom, our country and our people. “
‘Symbol of Ukrainian resistance’
Moscow’s focus on eastern Ukraine also kept the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol at bay. The port city on the Azov Sea is located in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years.
Military analysts believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to conquer the region after his forces failed to secure Kiev and other major cities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross had hoped to evacuate Mariupol’s residents on Saturday, but had not yet reached the city. A day earlier, local authorities said the Red Cross was being blocked by Russian forces.
A Zelenskyy adviser, 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 run to Mariupol to evacuate residents “in the coming days”.
Mariupol City Council said earlier Saturday that 10 empty buses were on their way to Berdyansk, a town 84 km (52.2 miles) west of Mariupol, to pick up people who managed to get there on their own.
About 2,000 came out of Mariupol on Friday, some on buses and some in their own vehicles, city officials said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 765 Mariupol residents on Saturday used private vehicles to reach Zaporizhzhia, a city still under Ukrainian control and which has served as a destination for other planned evacuations.
Some civilians who have escaped the besieged city said Russian soldiers seeking Ukrainian fighters repeatedly stopped them while fleeing.
“They stripped the men naked, looking for tattoos,” said Dmytro Kartavov, a 32-year-old builder.
Mariupol’s conquest would give Moscow an unbroken land bridge from Russia to Crimea, as it conquered from Ukraine in 2014. But its resistance has also gained 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 can not sit at the negotiating table,” Fesenko said.
Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met for face-to-face talks this week in Turkey’s Istanbul, but described the talks as “difficult”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Saturday that “the most important thing is that the negotiations continue, either in Istanbul or elsewhere”.
A new round of negotiations has not yet been announced.
But Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia said on Saturday that enough progress had been made to allow direct talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskyy.
“The Russian side confirmed our thesis that the draft documents have been sufficiently developed to allow direct consultations between the leaders of the two countries,” Arakhamia said.
Russia has not commented on the possibility.