MOSCOW - Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency said on Friday Ukrainian units were entering the southern city of Kherson and told any Russian troops still there to surrender.
In a statement issued in Russian, the agency said Kherson was coming back under Ukrainian control after being occupied since March and threatened to “destroy” any Russian soldiers who resisted.
“You have only one chance to avoid death - immediately surrender,” the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Defence Ministry said in the statement on the Telegram messaging app.
The statement, which offered the first official confirmation that Ukrainian forces were in Kherson, guaranteed the safety of any Russian soldiers who surrendered.
It said that Russian troops still in the city had been ordered by their commanders to change into civilian clothes and to hide.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday that more than 30,000 of its servicemen have been withdrawn to the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson, Interfax news agency reported.
Russia’s defence ministry said earlier on Friday it had completed the withdrawal of troops from the western bank of the Dnipro rive.
Ukrainian armed forces were in the final stage of reclaiming the west bank of the Dnipro River from Russian troops on Friday, a regional lawmaker said earlier on Friday.
Mr Serhiy Khlan, a deputy for Kherson Regional Council, said a Ukrainian flag had been raised in the city.
Ms Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, said Russian troops “have been changing into civilian clothes for two weeks.”
“This should focus our forces as it means saboteur operations cannot be ruled out,” she told a separate briefing. “Because of this, we are not rushing to announce our successes in other directions and in other towns.”
Mr Khlan also said, without citing evidence, that many Russian troops had drowned attempting to flee across the river.
Russia did not immediately comment on Mr Khlan’s or Ms Humeniuk’s remarks.
In its daily briefing, the ministry said all Russian forces and equipment had been transferred to the left, or eastern, bank of the Dnipro. It said the withdrawal was completed by 5am Moscow time (10am Singapore time) on Friday morning.
“The transfer of Russian troop units to the left bank of the Dnipro river has been completed,” the defence ministry said in a statement.
“Not a single unit of military equipment or weapons have been left on the right (western) bank. All Russian servicemen crossed to the left bank,” it added, saying that Russia had not suffered any loss of personnel or equipment during the withdrawal.
Reuters could not independently verify those details.
Pro-Russian war bloggers had reported late on Thursday that Russian forces crossing the river were coming under heavy fire from Ukrainian forces. The ministry said Ukrainian forces had struck Dnipro River crossings five times overnight with US-supplied Himars rocket systems.
Russia ordered the withdrawal on Wednesday, saying it had concluded that attempts to maintain its position and supply troops, including in the regional capital Kherson, were “futile” in the face of a mounting Ukrainian counteroffensive.
The speed of the withdrawal was faster than Ukraine and the United States had said they expected.
Top US general Mark Milley said on Wednesday he estimated that Russia had 20,000 to 30,000 troops to move across the river, and the pullout could take “days and perhaps even weeks”.
Ukraine’s defence minister told Reuters in an interview on Thursday he expected the withdrawal to take at least a week.
The Russian defence ministry said it had adopted “defensive lines and positions” on the eastern bank of the river, which Moscow hopes it will be able to better supply and defend.
Initially sceptical over Russia’s withdrawal plans, Kyiv has reclaimed dozens of towns and settlements that Russian troops have abandoned over the last 48 hours.
The withdrawal marks one of Russia’s biggest retreats in its nine-month war, after failing in an initial advance on the capital Kyiv and being ousted from the north-eastern Kharkiv region in early September.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday Russia remained committed to achieving the goals of what Moscow calls its “special military operation”, and said Moscow still viewed the Kherson region as “part of Russia.”
President Vladimir Putin proclaimed Kherson - and three other regions of Ukraine - as part of Russia in a triumphal ceremony in the Kremlin on Sept 30. Ukraine, its Western allies and an overwhelming majority of countries at the UN General Assembly have condemned the declared annexations as illegal.
Kyiv’s forces have been bearing down on Kherson since Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered his troops on Wednesday to withdraw. The city had been occupied since soon after Russia’s Feb 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Mr Khlan said Russian troops had blown up the Antonivskiy Bridge connecting the west and east banks of the Dnipro after retreating, and that they had also blown up a power plant.
Ukraine’s public broadcaster quoted local residents on Friday as saying the bridge had collapsed, and published a photograph showing whole sections of the bridge missing.
Reuters could not immediately determine what had caused the bridge’s collapse. REUTERS