By NEBI QENA and YURAS KARMANAU – Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine ( Associated Press) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned his people early Saturday that withdrawing Russian forces were creating “a complete disaster” outside the capital as they left mines across “the entire area”, including around houses and corpses.
He issued the warning as the humanitarian crisis deepened in the besieged city of Mariupol, with Russian forces blocking evacuation operations for the second consecutive day. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has accused the Ukrainians of launching a helicopter attack on a fuel depot on Russian soil.
Ukraine has denied responsibility for the blaze, but if Moscow’s claim is confirmed, it will be the war’s first known attack in which Ukrainian planes penetrated Russian airspace.
“Certainly, this is not something that can be considered as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, five weeks after Moscow sent more than 150,000 of its own troops across the border from Ukraine began to send.
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Russia has continued to withdraw from its ground forces from areas around Kiev after saying earlier this week that it would reduce military activity near the Ukrainian capital and the northern city of Chernihiv.
“They are exploiting the entire territory. They mine houses, mining equipment, even the bodies of people who have been killed, “Zelenskyy said in his nightly video speech to the nation. “There are many obstacles, many other dangers.”
Ukraine’s military says it has taken back 29 settlements in the Kiev and Chernihiv regions.
Ukraine and its allies nevertheless warned that the Kremlin was not de-escalating to boost confidence at the negotiating table, as it had claimed, but rather resupplying its troops and moving to the country’s east. These movements appear to be preparing for a intensified attack on the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in the country’s east, which includes Mariupol.
Zelenskyy warned of tough battles ahead as Russia redeployed troops. “We are preparing for an even more active defense,” he said.
He said nothing about the latest round of talks, which took place via video on Friday. At a round of talks earlier this week, Ukraine said it would be willing to make an effort to join NATO and declare itself neutral – Moscow’s main claim – in exchange for security guarantees from several other countries.
The invasion left thousands dead and expelled more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine.
Mariupol, the crushed and besieged southern port city, experienced some of the worst suffering of the war. Its capture would be a major prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is giving his country an uninterrupted agricultural bridge to Crimea, which was seized from Ukraine in 2014.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on Friday it was unable to carry out an operation to bring civilians by bus from Mariupol. City officials said the Russians were blocking access to the city.
“We do not see a real desire among the Russians and their satellites to provide an opportunity for Mariupol residents to evacuate to territory controlled by Ukraine,” Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, said on wrote the Telegram messaging application.
He said Russian forces “categorically do not allow humanitarian cargo, even in small quantities, into the city.”
About 100,000 people apparently live in the city, down from a pre-war 430,000. Weeks of Russian bombing and street fighting have caused severe shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
“We are few adjectives to describe the horrors suffered by Mariupol residents,” said Red Cross spokesman Ewan Watson.
Russian forces on Thursday blocked a convoy of 45 buses trying to evacuate people from Mariupol and seized 14 tonnes of food and medical supplies on its way to the city, Ukrainian authorities said.
Zelenskyy said more than 3,000 people were able to leave Mariupol on Friday.
He said he had discussed the humanitarian disaster by telephone with French President Emmanuel Macron and with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola during her visit to Kiev.
“Europe does not have the right to remain silent about what is happening in our Mariupol,” Zelenskyy said. “The whole world must respond to this humanitarian disaster.”
Elsewhere, at least three Russian ballistic missiles were fired at the Black Sea in the Odesa region late Friday, regional leader Maksim Marchenko said. The Ukrainian army said the Iskander missiles did not hit the critical infrastructure they were targeting.
Odesa is Ukraine’s largest port and the headquarters of its navy.
Regarding the fuel depot explosion, Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, said two Ukrainian helicopter gunships flew in extremely low and the civilian oil storage facility on the outskirts of the city of Belgorod, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Ukraine border, attacked.
The regional governor said two workers at the depot were injured, but the Rosneft state oil company denied anyone was injured.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security Council, said on Ukrainian television: “For some reason they say we did it, but in reality it does not correspond to reality.”
Later, in an interview with Fox, Zelenskyy declined to say whether Ukraine was behind the attack.
On the outskirts of Kiev, where Russian troops had withdrawn, damaged cars now left the streets of Irpin, a suburban area popular with young families, in ruins. Emergency workers carried seniors on stretcher across a wrecked bridge to safety.
Three wooden crosses next to a residential building damaged in a shelter marked the graves of a mother and son and an unknown man. A resident who only mentioned her name as Lila said she hurriedly helped bury them on March 5, just before Russian troops moved in.
“They were hit with artillery and they were burned alive,” she said.
A Irpin resident who only mentioned his name as Andriy says the Russians packed up their gear and left on Tuesday. The next day, they bombarded the town for nearly an hour before Ukrainian soldiers took it back.
“I do not think it’s over,” Andriy said. “They will be back.”
Karmanau reports from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Irpin, Ukraine, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.
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