Ukraine’s defence ministry says its forces have seized control of the Kyiv region from Russian troops as officials warned that the departing soldiers were creating a “catastrophic” situation for civilians by leaving behind mines.
The announcement on Saturday marks the first time Ukraine has claimed control of the capital region since Russia launched its invasion on February 24.
“The whole Kyiv region is liberated from the invader,” Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, wrote on Facebook.
There was no immediate Russian comment on the claim.
In total, Ukraine’s troops have retaken more than 30 towns and villages around Kyiv, according to officials. The recaptured towns bore the scars of five weeks of fighting, with destroyed armoured vehicles, military gear and dozens of bodies lying scattered over streets.
In Bucha, a town northwest of the capital, Ukrainian soldiers used cables to pull the bodies of civilians off the streets out of fear that Russian forces may have left them booby-trapped.
Bucha’s Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said authorities there have buried 280 people in a mass grave and said 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 one street in Bucha, the AFP reported seeing at least 20 corpses, 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 all were wearing civilian clothes – winter coats, jackets or tracksuit tops, jeans or jogging bottoms, and trainers or boots.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she was appalled by the 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.
Since sending troops into Ukraine in what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarise 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’s armed forces reported diminished Russian air and missile attacks on Saturday but said Russian troops retreating from near Kyiv were deploying mines.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned in a video address: “They are mining all this territory. Houses are mined, equipment is mined, even the bodies of dead people.”
He did not cite evidence.
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 Reuters news agency request for comment on the mining allegations.
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 shift, however, does 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 the towns Russian forces withdrew from to endure missile and rocket attacks from afar and for the battle in the east to be intense.
In his nightly video address on 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.”
Russia, Zelenskyy 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.”
‘Symbol of Ukrainian resistance’
Moscow’s focus on eastern Ukraine also kept the besieged southeastern city of Mariupol in the crosshairs. The port city on the Sea of Azov is located in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region, where Moscow-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 Saturday but had not yet reached the city. A day earlier, local authorities said the Red Cross was being blocked by Russian forces.
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”.
The Mariupol city council said earlier Saturday that 10 empty buses were headed to Berdyansk, a city 84km (52.2 miles) 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.
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 that has served as the destination for other planned evacuations.
Some civilians who have escaped the besieged city said Russian soldiers seeking Ukrainian fighters repeatedly stopped them as they fled.
“They stripped the men naked, looked for tattoos,” said Dmytro Kartavov, a 32-year-old builder.
Mariupol’s capture would give Moscow an unbroken land bridge from Russia to Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. But its resistance 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.
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 “main thing is that the talks continue, either in Istanbul or somewhere else”.
A new round of talks 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 two countries’ leaders,” Arakhamia said.
Russia has not commented on the possibility.