IZIUM, Ukraine (AP) — Hand in hand, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy watched his country’s flag rise above the recaptured town of Izium on Wednesday, making a rare foray outside the capital which highlights Moscow’s embarrassing withdrawal from a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Russian forces left the war-scarred city last week as soldiers from Kyiv continued a stunning advance that reclaimed large swaths of territory in Ukraine’s northeast Kharkiv region.
As Zelenskyy watched and sang the national anthem, the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of the burning city hall. After nearly six months under Russian occupation, Izium was largely devastated, with apartment buildings blackened by fire and pockmarked by artillery strikes.
A gaping hole and piles of rubble stood where a building had collapsed.
“The sight is very shocking, but it’s not shocking to me,” Zelenskyy told reporters, “because we started seeing the same images of Bucha, of the first vacated territories…the same destroyed buildings, people killed.”
Bucha is a small town on the outskirts of Kyiv from which Russian troops withdrew in March. In the aftermath, the Ukrainian authorities discovered the bodies of hundreds of civilians thrown into the streets, courtyards and mass graves. Many bore signs of torture.
Prosecutors said they have so far found six bodies bearing signs of torture in recently recaptured villages in the Kharkiv region. The head of the Kharkiv prosecutor’s office, Oleksandr Filchakov, said bodies were found in Hrakove and Zaliznyche, villages about 60 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Kharkiv city.
“We have a terrible picture of what the occupiers have done. … Towns such as Balakliia, Izium, are in the same row as Bucha, Borodyanka, Irpin,” Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin said, listing places where Ukrainians alleged Russian forces committed atrocities. .
Local authorities made similar statements in other areas previously held by Russia, but it was not immediately possible to verify their information. They have yet to provide evidence of potential atrocities on the scale depicted in Bucha, where the number and conditions of civilian casualties have prompted the international community to demand war crimes prosecutions of Russian officials.
Moscow’s recent rout in northeastern Ukraine was its biggest military defeat since the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Kyiv region months ago. On the northern outskirts of Izium, the remains of Russian tanks and vehicles lay in pieces along a road.
During Zelenskyy’s visit, his forces continued their counteroffensive, clearing retaken ground and investigating possible war crimes. He said “life is coming back” as Ukrainian soldiers return to previously occupied villages.
Ukrainian governor of the eastern Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said Ukrainian soldiers were preparing to retake the area, which borders the Kharkiv region and had been mainly under Russian control since July. Intense shelling by Ukrainian forces continued, he said.
Haidai told The Associated Press that Ukrainian troops were displaying Ukrainian flags in the towns of Svatove and Starobilsk.
But in Kreminna, another town where the Ukrainians hoisted their flag, the Russians returned on Wednesday and “took down the (Ukrainian) flags and demonstrably show that they are there,” Haidai said.
A separatist military leader allied with Russia has confirmed the Ukrainian advance on the Lugansk region. Andrei Marochko, a local militia officer, told Russian television the situation was “really difficult”.
“In some places the line of contact moved closer to the borders of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” Marochko said, referring to the independent state declared by the separatists eight years ago.
The counter-offensive left more weapons in Ukrainian hands.
Russian forces likely left behind dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers and other heavy weapons as they fled Ukraine’s eastward advance, a think tank said on Wednesday. Ukrainian. The Center for Defense Strategies said a Russian unit fleeing the Izium region left behind more than three dozen T-80 tanks and about as many infantry fighting vehicles. Another unit left behind 47 tanks and 27 armored vehicles, he added.
The center said Russian forces tried to destroy some of the abandoned vehicles with artillery fire as they retreated. As a rule, the armed forces destroy the equipment left behind so that their adversary cannot use it. However, the chaos of the Russian withdrawal apparently forced them to abandon ammunition and weapons intact.
With recent Ukrainian gains, a new frontline has emerged along the Oskil River, which largely traces the eastern edge of the Kharkiv region, a Washington-based think tank, the Institute for study of war.
“Russian troops are unlikely to be strong enough to prevent further Ukrainian advances along the entire Oskil River, as they do not appear to be receiving reinforcements, and Ukrainian troops will likely be able to exploit this weakness to resume the counter-offensive across the Oskil if they wish. “, said the institute.
In other areas, Russia continued its attacks, claiming even more casualties in a war that has lasted nearly seven months.
Two people were killed and three injured after Russia attacked Mykolaiv with S-300 missiles overnight, regional governor Vitaliy Kim said.
The Nikopol region, across a river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, was shelled three times overnight, with no immediate injuries, regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko said.
Fighting also raged in the eastern Donetsk region, where shelling killed five civilians and injured 16. Together, Lugansk and Donetsk form the Donbass, an industrial area that Moscow set out to conquer after an unsuccessful attempt to invade Kyiv.
Russian troops target critical infrastructure. Eight cruise missiles targeting hydraulic equipment – possibly a dam on the Inhulets River or a reservoir – hit Zelenskyy’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih, a town 150 km (93 miles) southwest of Dnipro, a reported Deputy Head of the President’s Office Kyrylo Tymoshenko. on his Telegram channel. Zelenskyy said the strikes appeared to be an attempt to flood the city. Video posted online showed high water levels in Inhulets and flooded streets in the city, and evacuations of residents were suggested.
US President Joe Biden observed on Wednesday that Ukrainian forces had made “significant progress” in recent days, but added: “I think it’s going to be a long time.”
While criticism of the invasion appears to be growing in Russia, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said after a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that awareness has grown there. down now that it was a mistake to start this war.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday he had spoken with Putin about exporting Russian fertilizers through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to deal with a threat of famine. The UN chief told a news conference in New York that high fertilizer prices have reduced the planting of crops, making it essential to increase Russian exports of ammonia – a key ingredient in fertilizers – shipping it through the Black Sea ports now used to transport grain. from Ukraine.
Western military and economic support has kept Ukraine fighting since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, and the Ukrainian government received more aid on Wednesday.
An international group of creditors, including the United States, has finalized an agreement to suspend Ukraine’s debt service until the end of 2023, helping the country ease liquidity pressures and increase spending social, health and economic.
Arhirova reported from Kyiv. Associated Press reporter Jon Gambrell in Kyiv contributed.
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