Kyiv – Residents on Ukraine’s beleaguered south-east coast waited for a possible evacuation on Sunday, as the country’s president said Russia’s obsession with seizing a key port city had weakened it and created opportunities for its military.
Two loud explosions were heard early Sunday in Odessa on the Black Sea, and black smoke billowed over the city. There was no official information about what caused the explosions in the largest Ukrainian port, where the Ukrainian Navy is headquartered.
With Mariupol east of Odessa right in Russia’s crosshairs, Ukraine insists it has gained a lead elsewhere in the country, leading to troops retaking areas north of the capital Kyiv as Russian forces pulled out.
“Ukraine has gained invaluable time, time that allows us to thwart enemy tactics and weaken their capabilities,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Saturday.
But in Mariupol, which has been surrounded by Russian forces for more than a month and has been brutalized by some of the worst attacks of the war, conditions remain dire and the prospects of escape uncertain.
About 100,000 people are believed to remain in the Sea of Azov city, less than a quarter of the pre-war population of 430,000, and acute shortages of water, food, fuel and medicines remain.
Many still in Mariupol are waiting for the fulfillment of promises that will help them get to safety. Among those trying to get residents out was the International Committee of the Red Cross, which still had not reached the city on Saturday, a day after local authorities said it had been blocked by Russian forces.
Some residents fled on their own, including Tamila Mazurenko, who reached Zaporizhzhia, a town still under Ukrainian control that has served as a hub for other evacuations.
“I just have one question: why?” she said of her city’s ordeal. “Our normal life has been destroyed. And we lost everything. I don’t have a job, I can’t find my son.”
Mariupol is in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass region, where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian troops for eight years. Its capture would create an uninterrupted land corridor from Russia to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
As Ukrainian troops cautiously advanced to retake territory north of Kyiv, the country and its western allies said Russia is building its strength in eastern Ukraine. Where Russian troops are retreating, Ukraine said it will continue its attacks, shelling and targeting them as they retreat.
“Peace will not be the result of decisions made by the enemy somewhere in Moscow. There is no reason to harbor empty hopes that they will simply leave our country. We can only have peace by fighting,” said Zelenskyy.
Although the geography of the battlefield changed, little changed for many Ukrainians after more than five weeks of war that saw more than 4 million people flee the country as refugees.
Zelenskyy claimed that when Russian troops were shifting, they left mines around houses, abandoned equipment and even the bodies of the dead. These claims could not be independently verified, but Ukrainian troops heeded the warning.
In Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Associated Press journalists observed Ukrainian soldiers, supported by a column of tanks and other armored vehicles, using cables to drag bodies remotely off a road, fearing they might be booby-trapped be. Locals said the dead — AP counted at least six — were civilians killed without provocation by retreating Russian soldiers.
Signs of bitter fighting were everywhere in the cities around Kyiv after the Russian transfer. Destroyed armored vehicles from both armies lay on roads and fields along with scattered military equipment.
Ukrainian troops were stationed at the entrance to Antonov Airport in the suburb of Hostomel and demonstrated control of the runway that Russia attempted to storm in the early days of the war.
At the site lay the Mriya, one of the largest aircraft ever built, wrecked under a hangar riddled with holes from February’s attack.
“The Russians couldn’t build one, so they destroyed it,” said Oleksandr Merkushev, mayor of nearby Irpin.
The head of Ukraine’s delegation in talks with Russia said Moscow’s negotiators had informally agreed to most of a draft proposal discussed at face-to-face talks in Istanbul this week, but no written confirmation had been provided. However, Davyd Arakhamia said on Ukrainian television that he hopes the draft is sufficiently developed for the two countries’ presidents to meet to discuss it.
Even as glimmers of hope for Ukraine appeared in some places, Zelenskyy said he expected cities where Russian forces departed would endure missile and rocket attacks from afar and that the battle in the east would be intense. In his evening address on Saturday, he urged his people to do whatever it takes to ensure the country’s survival, even acts as simple as being kind to one another.
“When a nation is defending itself in a war of annihilation, when the life or death of millions is at stake, there are no unimportant things. … And everyone can contribute to a victory for everyone,” said the President. “Some with guns in hand. Some through work. And some with a warm word and help at the right moment. Do everything you can so that we stand together in this war for our freedom, for our independence.”
Karmanau reported from Lemberg, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Irpin, Ukraine, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/04/03/ukraine-sees-openings-as-russia-fixed-on-besieged-mariupol/ Ukraine sees openings as Russia fixates on besieged Mariupol