Zelensky says Ukrainian special military units in Kherson

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Ukraine’s president has said that special military units have entered the city of Kherson.

In a video address hours after Russia said it had completed withdrawing troops from the strategically key city, President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “As of now, our defenders are approaching the city. In quite a bit, we are going to enter. But special units are already in the city.”

Russia relinquished its final foothold in the major city, one of the first to be captured in the war that began on February 24. The withdrawal could act as a springboard for further advances into occupied territory.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said its troops finished withdrawing from the western bank of the river that divides Ukraine’s Kherson region at 5am local time.

The area they left included the city of Kherson, the only provincial capital Russia had captured during its nearly nine-month invasion of Ukraine.

(PA Graphics)

A Ukrainian flag flew over a monument in a central Kherson square for the first time since the city was seized in early March. Some footage showed crowds cheering on men in military uniform and tossing one man wearing combat fatigues up in the air. Other videos showed villagers embracing troops en route to the city.

Ukrainian officials have not claimed the city was yet in Ukrainian hands.

Mr Zelensky said that Russian forces placed mines in the city and that after troops enter, they will be followed by sappers, rescue workers and energy personnel.

Despite the daunting tasks ahead of them, “Medicine, communications, social services are returning… Life is returning,” he said.

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Volunteers help an elderly evacuee from Kherson(AP Photo)

“Your command left you to the mercy of fate,” it said in a statement. “Your commanders urge you to change into civilian clothes and try to escape from Kherson on your own. Obviously, you won’t be able to.”

A Ukrainian regional official, Serhii Khlan, disputed the Russian Defence Ministry’s claim that the 30,000 retreating troops took all 5,000 pieces of equipment with them, saying “a lot” of hardware got left behind.

The final withdrawal came six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed the Kherson region and three other Ukrainian provinces, vowing they would remain Russian forever.

Moscow’s forces still control about 70% of the Kherson region following the pullback ordered amid a Ukrainian counter-offensive.

The Kremlin remained defiant on Friday, insisting the withdrawal in no way represented an embarrassment for Mr Putin.

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Ukrainians gather in central Kyiv to celebrate the recapturing of Kherson (Bernat Armangue/AP)

He added that the Kremlin does not regret holding festivities just over a month ago to celebrate the annexation of occupied or partially occupied regions of Ukraine, deferring all questions about the Kherson withdrawal to the Defence Ministry.

Mr Putin has so far been silent about Kherson, despite making several public appearances since the withdrawal was announced.

Shortly before the Russian announcement, Mr Zelensky’s office described the situation in the province as “difficult.” It reported Russian shelling of some villages and towns Ukrainian forces reclaimed in recent weeks during their counteroffensive in the Kherson region.

The General Staff of Ukraine’s army said the Russian forces left looted homes, damaged power lines and mined roads in their wake.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak predicted on Thursday the departing Russians would seek to turn Kherson into a “city of death” and would continue to shell it after relocating across the Dnieper River.

Ukrainian officials were wary of the Russian pullback announced this week, fearing their soldiers could get drawn into an ambush in Kherson city, which had a pre-war population of 280,000.

Military analysts also had predicted it would take Russia’s military at least a week to complete the troop withdrawal.

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