Street battles hit a Kyiv suburb, some of the closest fighting to the capital yet

Ukrainian soldiers stand guard at a bridge in the villages of Irpin and Bucha, north-west of Kyiv, on March 12, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

IRPIN, UKRAINE (NYTIMES) - In Irpin, just outside the capital city of Kyiv, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers were fighting a street-by-street battle on Saturday (March 12), turning what was a leafy suburb just two weeks ago into a suburban battleground.

Russian troops have gotten this close to the capital only once or twice before. And although the loss of the town would not necessarily mean an immediate advance on Kyiv, a Russian victory here would help tighten the cordon around the city, according to military analysts.

Some residents fleeing their homes on Saturday were crying as they lugged plastic bags of belongings over the concrete debris of a bridge that had been destroyed.

Ukrainian forces blew up the crossing over the Irpin River more than a week ago to prevent Russian tanks from rolling in. Just days ago, along this same escape route, a mother, her children and a church volunteer who was helping them were killed during intense shelling.

One of the Ukrainian fighters trying to hold the Russians at bay on Saturday, a man named Vitaly, had taken up a position outside what would once have been an unlikely spot for combat: a gas station minimarket, its windows blown out by shelling, on the city's eastern edge.

This is his home town, and he joined the volunteer forces called the Territorial Defense Forces to try to protect it just two weeks ago.

"We are trying to push them back," he said, "but we don't control the town."

The battle for the north-western suburb of Irpin - about 5km from Kyiv's city limits - literally echoed in the capital, where the low rumble of sustained fire was close enough to be heard in most parts of the city. Artillery duels between Ukrainian and Russian forces in the suburbs that had intensified on Friday continued throughout the day on Saturday.

Ukrainian forces were firing volleys of Grad rocket artillery, shot from truck-mounted boxes of rockets, typically with a dozen or more fired at a time. Although the artillery was out of view, the whooshing noises of the rockets blasting off, followed a few seconds later by the distant thuds of impacts, could be heard every 20 minutes or so.

So far on Saturday, the rockets flew over Irpin, rather than crashing into it.

Mr Vadim Kovalchuk, 33, a construction engineer who had also stayed as a volunteer soldier, described the Irpin he has known as a "wonderful town", a perfect place for people who wanted to be close to Kyiv and its job market and schools.

Real estate was cheaper than in the city centre, he said, and the town had grown over the past two decades as newcomers were attracted to its location. Many people had commuted by car to work in the city centre until the peace was shattered.

A member of the Ukrainian forces helping a woman to cross the Irpin river as she evacuates from Irpin town, outside of Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 12, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

As Russian forces have advanced over the past week into towns like Irpin, Ukrainian forces have counterattacked with ambushes on armoured columns. By Saturday, there were no indications of further efforts by the Russian army to move those columns closer to the city.

With the Russian infantry holding positions in parts of Irpin, the flow of internally displaced people from the town to Kyiv over the remnants of the bridge had slowed to a trickle of largely older people who had not managed to get out earlier.

The town is along one of two main routes into the capital now blocked by Russian forces. The other approach for Moscow's troops is outside another suburb, Brovary, to the east, the site of a Ukrainian ambush of a Russian tank column on Wednesday (March 9).

Mr Vitaly, a systems administrator turned soldier, described the battleground on Saturday but gave only his first name out of fear for his safety.

Three main streets lead through the town, he explained, running between high-rise apartment blocks and seven municipal parks. The parks had been a selling point for families moving to the suburbs before the war.

Smoke billows from a frozen foods warehouse after it was hit by artillery fire in Brovary, east of Kyiv, on March 12, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

He said Unity Street was controlled by Ukraine on Saturday morning. Central Street was a no man's land, exposed to both Ukrainian and Russian forces. And Russian forces were holed up in buildings along University Street.

But he said the situation was fluid. Ukrainian soldiers had a "little island" around a shopping centre near the city centre, but otherwise it wasn't always clear who was where.

Beneath what was left of the bridge, green water roiled over concrete blocks. Wooden planks have been laid over the debris for fleeing people to cross one or two at a time. On the other side, abandoned bags of clothes, cast-off suitcases and other items littered the trail.

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On the Irpin side, the road was cluttered with a line of abandoned cars, parked three rows deep, that stretched about half a mile.

A gray Skoda left with a driver's door open had printer paper taped to the windows saying, "Children". A white Hyundai Clarity had a bullet hole in the windshield.

Ms Natalia Yaromova, 50, was headed towards the bridge on Saturday. She and her husband had waited to leave because she wanted to do what she could to help fellow residents.

Her home confectionery business, Sweet Happiness for Everyone, had copious stores of baking ingredients before the fighting started. She baked through the first two weeks of the war, giving away the food.

"I had a lot of leftover cakes in the freezer - cream, eggs, sugar," she said. "We stayed to cook." With the entire inventory of Sweet Happiness for Everyone depleted, she was leaving.

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