Russia withdrawing, Ukrainian official fears ‘city of death’

KYIV, Ukraine — Russia said it began withdrawing troops from a strategic Ukrainian city Thursday, creating a potential turning point in the grinding war, while a Ukrainian official warned that Russian land mines could render Kherson a “city of death.”

Ukrainian officials acknowledged Moscow’s forces had no choice but to flee Kherson, yet they remained cautious, fearing an ambush. With Ukrainian officials tight-lipped with their assessments, reporters not present and spotty communications, it was difficult to know what was happening in the port city, where the residents who remained after tens of thousands fled were afraid to leave their homes.

A forced pullout from Kherson — the only provincial capital Moscow captured after invading Ukraine in February — would mark one of Russia’s worst war setbacks. Recapturing the city, whose pre-war population was 280,000, could provide Ukraine a launching pad for supplies and troops to try to win back other lost territory in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.

Ukrainian forces seem to be scoring more battlefield successes elsewhere in the Kherson region and closing in on the city. President Volodymyr Zelenskky said Thursday night the pace has increased so much that residents “are now checking almost every hour where our units have reached and where else our national flag was raised.”

The armed forces commander-in-chief, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, said Kyiv’s forces have advanced 36.5 kilometers and retaken 41 villages and towns since Oct. 1 in the province, which the Kremlin has illegally annexed. That included 12 settlements on Wednesday alone.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Russian troops laid mines throughout Kherson as they withdrew to turn it into a “city of death” and predicted they would shell it after relocating across the Dnieper River.

From these new positions, the Kremlin could try to escalate the 8 1/2-month war, which US assessments showed may already have killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

Arkadiy Dovzhenko, who fled Kherson in June, said his grandparents still living there told him Thursday that “the Russians were bringing a lot of equipment into the town and also mining every inch of it.”

Zelenskyy said Thursday night his forces were racing to remove land mines from 170,000 square meters nationwide, and planned also to do so in Kherson. A spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern military, Natalia Humeniuk, said on Ukrainian television that resistance forces working behind enemy lines “carefully collect information” about critical infrastructure threatened by mines.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered a troop withdrawal from Kherson and nearby areas on Wednesday after his top general in Ukraine reported that a loss of supply routes during Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive made a defense “futile.”

Shoigu’s ministry reported Thursday a “maneuver of units of the Russian group” to the Dnieper River’s eastern bank, also known as its left bank.

On Thursday, Ukrainian officials appeared to soften the skepticism they had expressed over whether the Russians were really on the run or trying to trap Ukraine’s soldiers. “The enemy had no other choice but to resort to fleeing,” armed forces chief Zaluzhny said, because Kyiv’s army destroyed supply systems and disrupted Russia’s local military command.

Still, he said the Ukrainian military could not confirm a Russian withdrawal.

Alexander Khara, of the Kyiv-based think tank Center for Defense Strategies, echoed those concerns, saying he remained fearful that Russian forces could destroy a dam upriver from Kherson and flood the city’s approaches. The former Ukrainian diplomat also warned of booby traps and other possible dangers.

“I would be surprised if the Russians had not set up something, some surprises for Ukraine,” Khara said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who just over a month ago celebrated the annexation of Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions and vowed to defend them by any means, has not commented on the withdrawal. (AP)


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