Ukraine announced on Saturday that the entire kyiv region was now “liberated”, with Russian forces operating a “rapid withdrawal” from the north of the country, but to better “maintain control” of the “vast territories” they occupy in the east and the south.
A martyr city in the south-east and a strategic port, Mariupol, on the other hand, remained in the Russian grip, in a catastrophic humanitarian situation, without it being known on Saturday evening whether the evacuation of civilians envisaged by the Red Cross could have had location.
As the Russian troops withdraw as announced from the regions of kyiv and Cherniguiv (north), the Ukrainian forces have been able to retake dozens of localities, devastated by the fighting: “Irpin, Boutcha, Gostomel and the whole region of kyiv have been liberated from the invader,” said Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Maliar.
Among these cities, Boutcha, northwest of kyiv, where nearly 300 people had to be buried “in mass graves”, told AFP its mayor, Anatoly Fedorouk.
An AFP journalist saw the bodies of at least twenty men in civilian clothes there. One of them with his hands tied behind his back, next to an open Ukrainian passport lying on the ground.
Gaping holes caused by shells in apartment buildings, downed power lines: the city, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, is devastated.
In nearby Irpin, demining operations continued on Saturday. According to the emergency services, 643 explosive devices have been deactivated there since it fell into Ukrainian hands.
– Territorial continuity –
With this “rapid withdrawal” from the north of the country, “it is quite clear that Russia has chosen another priority tactic”, wrote the Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaïlo Podoliak, on the Telegram messenger: “to withdraw towards the east and the south” to “keep control of vast occupied territories” and “hardly dictate its conditions”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had already claimed that the Russians were preparing for “powerful attacks” in the east, in particular on Mariupol where some 160,000 people would still be blocked and of which at least 5,000 inhabitants were killed, according to local authorities.
For Moscow, controlling Mariupol would ensure territorial continuity from Crimea to the two pro-Russian separatist republics of Donbass, Donetsk and Lugansk.
Unable for weeks, evacuations began on a small scale. On Friday, “humanitarian corridors operated in three regions: Donetsk, Lugansk and Zaporozhye. We managed to save 6,266 people, including 3,071 from Mariupol,” President Zelensky said overnight from Friday to Saturday.
– “Our city no longer exists” –
AFP witnessed the arrival of around 30 evacuation buses in the city of Zaporozhye on Friday evening. “We cried when we saw soldiers at the checkpoint with Ukrainian patches on their arms,” said Olena, her baby girl in her arms. “My house was destroyed. I saw it in photos. Our town no longer exists.”
Several people told AFP they had to walk 15 kilometers or more to leave Mariupol, before finding private vehicles, then ending their journey with a 12-hour bus ride through a series of checkpoints, instead three hours before the war.
On Saturday, seven humanitarian corridors were planned in the East and Southeast, according to Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Saturday offered “maritime support, especially for the evacuation from Mariupol of civilians and wounded Turkish or other nationalities”, according to the official Anadolu news agency.
– the pope castigates the Russian invasion –
Also in the south, in Energodar, a city occupied by Russian forces, a demonstration of civilians was dispersed on Saturday by sound grenade fire which injured four, according to a Ukrainian official and videos posted on the internet.
In Russia, at least 211 people were arrested in 17 cities including Moscow and Saint-Petersburg, for protesting against the war, indicated the specialized NGO OVD-Info.
Sit-ins had been announced on social networks in around thirty cities, from Vladivostok (Far East) to Sochi (south). The organizers wanted to protest against “the collapse of the Russian economy, against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin” and for the release of imprisoned opponent Alexei Navalny.
Without naming him, Pope Francis, traveling on the island of Malta, also denounced the Russian president. “Some powerful person, sadly locked in his anachronistic pretensions of nationalist interests, provokes and foments conflicts”, declared the sovereign pontiff, in a transparent allusion to the leader of the Kremlin.
He added that he was planning to go to Ukraine soon, at the invitation of President Zelensky: “yes, it’s on the table”, he soberly indicated.
– Russian withdrawal from Chernobyl –
On Friday, Russia accused Ukraine of carrying out a helicopter strike on its soil and threatened to toughen negotiations.
The attack hit energy giant Rosneft’s fuel storage facilities in Belgorod, a Russian town about 40 kilometers from the border with Ukraine.
For the British Ministry of Defence, the destruction of oil tanks in Belgorod as well as explosions in an ammunition depot near the city will “probably add additional pressure in the short term on the already stretched Russian supply chains”.
Ukraine, for its part, warned that Russian soldiers who left the Chernobyl nuclear power plant – the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986 – after weeks of occupation could have been exposed to radiation, judging that “Russia behaved irresponsibly at Chernobyl” by digging trenches in contaminated areas and preventing plant personnel from carrying out their duties.
Since the night of Friday to Saturday, several bombings have taken place, according to various Ukrainian sources: residential neighborhoods in Kharkiv (east), infrastructure in Dnipro (center), localities in the regions of Donetsk, Lugansk (east) and Kherson ( South).
Infrastructure was also hit in Kremenchuk (center, Poltava region), headquarters of the largest Ukrainian oil refinery, said the country’s presidency, while the Russian Ministry of Defense announced on Saturday morning that it had destroyed with “weapons of high precision” of the refinery’s gasoline and diesel fuel depots.
These depots were used to supply fuel to Ukrainian forces in the center and east of the country, according to a ministry statement.
“Russian missiles” also disabled two military airfields in the Poltava and Dnipropetrovsk regions (center), according to the same source.
– New US aid –
“Give us missiles. Give us planes,” President Zelensky pleaded on the American channel Fox News. “You can’t give us F-18s or F-19s or whatever you have? Give us the old Soviet planes (…). Give me something to defend my country.”
The United States announced up to $300 million more in military aid to Ukraine, on top of that allocated since the invasion, amounting to more than $1.6 billion.
Peace talks between Ukrainian and Russian officials resumed on Friday via video, but the Kremlin warned that the attack in Belgorod could not “be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for further negotiations”.
On Sunday, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths will be in Moscow to try to secure a “humanitarian ceasefire”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced on Friday. .