ZAPORIZHZHIA, UKRAINE (REUTERS) - Ukraine said on Saturday (April 2) its forces had seized back all areas around Kyiv, claiming complete control of the capital region for the first time since Russia launched the invasion.
As Russian troops regrouped for battles in east Ukraine, towns surrounding Kyiv bore scars of five weeks of fighting.
Dead civilians laid scattered over streets near mangled wrecks of burned-out Russian tanks and unexploded rockets. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russian forces of leaving behind mines.
Ukraine’s troops have retaken more than 30 towns and villages around Kyiv since Russia pulled back from the area this week, Ukrainian presidential adviser Okeksiy Arestovych said.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister, Hanna Malyar, wrote on Facebook that the “whole Kyiv region is liberated from the invader.” There was no Russian comment on the claim, which Reuters could not immediately verify.
At one recaptured town reached by Reuters, residents tearfully recalled brushes with death.
“The first time, I went out of the room and a bullet broke the glass, the window, and got stuck in the dresser,” said Mariya Zhelezova, 74, in the country town of Bucha. “The second time, shattered glass almost got into my leg.”
Bucha’s mayor, Anatoliy Fedoruk, said more than 300 residents had been killed.
“We don’t want them to come back,” Zhelezova said. “I had a dream today – that they left, and didn’t come back.”
Ukraine’s armed forces reported diminished Russian air and missile strikes on Saturday but said retreating Russian forces were deploying mines.
Zelenskiy 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 over 1,500 explosives had been found in one day during a search of the village of Dmytrivka, west of Kyiv. It warned people to be vigilant.
Russia’s defence ministry did not reply to a request for comment on the mining allegations. Reuters could not independently verify them.
Since sending troops on Feb 24 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.
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.
Both sides described talks held this week in Istanbul and by video link as “difficult”.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Saturday 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 Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“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.
Among those killed near Kyiv was Maksim Levin, a Ukrainian photographer and videographer who was working for a local news website and was a long-time contributor to Reuters.
His body was found in a village north of Kyiv on April 1, the news website LB.ua where he worked said on Saturday.
In the east, a Red Cross convoy was again seeking to evacuate civilians from the besieged port of Mariupol after abandoning an attempt on Friday over security concerns.
It was not expected to reach the port until at least Sunday.
Tens of thousands of civilians remained trapped with scant access to food and water in Mariupol, Russia’s main target in Ukraine’s southeastern region of Donbas.
Some civilians who have escaped Mariupol and reached Zaporizhzhia 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, adding that the troops paid particular attention to the men’s knees.
“I work, I do repairs, naturally my knees – these are working knees. They say – (you) climbed trenches, dug, and the like.”
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Ewan Watson said its convoy had departed the city of Zaporizhzhia, some 200 kilometres from Mariupol, and would spend the night en route.
Russia blamed the ICRC for the delays..
Pope Francis came the closest he has yet to criticising Putin over the invasion. He did not name the Russian president but said a "potentate" was fomenting conflicts for nationalist interests.
"Once again, some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, is provoking and fomenting conflicts, while ordinary people sense the need to build a future that will either be shared or not be at all," he said during a visit to Malta.
Ukrainian officials reported missile strikes in various parts of the country.
In the south-central Dnipro region, a Russian rocket hit a rail line, badly damaging tracks and suspending train traffic, Ukrainian officials said. Earlier, Russian missiles hit the central Ukrainian cities of Poltava and Kremenchuk, said Dmitry Lunin, head of the Poltava region.
Russia's defence ministry said its missiles had disabled military airfields in Poltava and Dnipro. It later said its forces had hit 28 Ukrainian military facilities across the country, including two depots of rockets and artillery weapons and ammunition.
The Ukrainian military also reported Russian air strikes on the cities of Severodonetsk and Rubizhne in the Luhansk region.
Alcohol sales in Kyiv
In Kyiv, people started buying alcohol again after Mayor Vitali Klitschko relaxed a month-long ban.
Olena, a psychologist who was buying beer in a supermarket, said it did not mean people had forgotten the war.
"We are just supporting our country in this way. No one will be better off if we are depressed, doing nothing," she said.
"I'm happy because for two weeks I've been walking around thinking 'I want a beer'," she said, smiling.