Ukrainian forces have entered the western edge of Kherson city, according to images on social media geolocated by CNN, following the retreat of Russian troops.
The arrival of Ukraine’s military in the regional capital on Friday comes after Russia withdrew from the region west of the Dnipro River, marking one of the biggest military setbacks for the Kremlin since the war began.
In the images, Ukrainian troops can be seen surrounded by residents in Kherson city’s Shumenskyi district. Citizens have also flooded the city’s central square, waving and raising Ukrainian flags, in other images geolocated by CNN.
In a statement carried by Russia’s state news agencies, Russia’s Defence Ministry said the withdrawal was completed at 5am on Friday, and not a single unit of military equipment was left behind.
Ukrainian officials have not confirmed the city was back in Ukrainian hands. A spokesperson for Ukraine’s military intelligence agency said “an operation to liberate Kherson” and the surrounding region of the same name was underway.
“It will be possible to talk about establishing Ukrainian control over the city only after an official report by the General Staff” of the Ukrainian army, Andriy Yusov told The Associated Press.
Ukrainian intelligence urged Russian soldiers who might still be in the city to surrender in anticipation of Ukrainian forces arriving.
“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 Defense 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.
Images and video on social media Friday also showed that the Antonivskyi Bridge, the main conduit over the Dnipro in the Kherson region, had been destroyed.
Alexander Kots, a reporter for the Russian pro-government tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda embedded with Russian forces, posted a video on his Telegram channel standing on the crossing, showing the entire center section of the bridge destroyed.
“Behind me are the two collapsed spans of (the) bridge,” Kots said. “They were likely blown up during the withdrawal of the Russian group of forces from the right bank to the left,” or western bank to eastern bank.
City of death
Shortly before the Russian announcement, the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the situation in the Kherson region as “difficult.”
It reported Russian shelling of some of the villages and towns Ukrainian forces reclaimed in recent weeks during their counteroffensive in the Kherson region.
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 prewar population of 280,000. Military analysts also had predicted it would take Russia’s military at least a week to complete the troop withdrawal.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Thursday that the retreating Russian troops laid mines throughout Kherson to turn it into a “city of death.” He also predicted they would shell the city after relocating across the Dnieper River.
The state of the key Antonivskiy Bridge that links the western and eastern banks of the Dnieper in the Kherson region remained unclear Friday, and could be key in determining whether the Russians have in fact all left Kherson city.
Russian media reports suggested the bridge was blown up following the Russian withdrawal; pro-Kremlin reporters posted footage of the bridge missing a large section. But Sergei Yeliseyev, a Russian-installed official in the Kherson region, told the Interfax news agency that “the Antonivskiy Bridge hasn’t been blown up, it’s in the same condition.”
Recapturing the city 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.
From its forces new positions on the eastern bank, however, the Kremlin could try to escalate the war, which US assessments showed may already have killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
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