KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — As Russian forces pull back from Ukraine’s capital region, retreating troops are creating a “catastrophic” situation for civilians by leaving mines around homes, abandoned equipment and “even the bodies of those killed,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Saturday.
Ukraine and its Western allies reported mounting evidence of Russia withdrawing its forces from around Kyiv and building up troop strength in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian fighters reclaimed several areas near the capital after forcing the Russians out or moving in after them, officials said.
The visible shift did not mean the country faced a reprieve from more than five weeks of war or that the more than 4 million refugees who have fled Ukraine will return soon. Zelenskyy said he expects departed towns to receive airstrikes and shelling from afar and for the battle in the east to be intense.
“It’s still not possible to return to normal life, as it used to be, even at the territories that we are taking back after the fighting,” the president told his nation in a nightly video message. “We need wait until our land is demined, wait till we are able to assure you that there won’t be new shelling.”
Moscow’s focus on eastern Ukraine also kept the besieged southern city of Mariupol in the crosshairs. The port city on the Sea of Azoz is located in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for eight years and military analysts think Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to expand control after his forces failed to secure Kyiv and other major cities.
The International Committee of the Red Cross planned to try Saturday to get emergency supplies into Mariupol and to evacuate residents. The Red Cross said it was unable to carry out the operation Friday because it did not receive assurances the route was safe. City authorities said the Russians blocked access to the city.
Mariupol, which was surrounded by Russian forces a month ago, has been the scene of some of the war’s worst attacks, including on a maternity hospital and a theater sheltering civilians. Around 100,000 people are believed to remain in the city, down from a prewar population of 430,000, and facing dire shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
The city’s capture would give Moscow an unbroken land bridge from Russia to Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014, but also has taken on symbolic significance during Russia’s invasion, said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Ukrainian think-tank Penta.
“Mariupol has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, and without its conquest, Putin cannot sit down at the negotiating table,” Fesenko said.
The Mariupol city council said Saturday that 10 empty buses were headed to Berdyansk, a city 84 kilometers west of Mariupol, to pick up people who can get there on their own. Some 2,000 made it out of Mariupol on Friday, some on buses and some in their own vehicles, city officials said.
An adviser to Zelenskyy, Oleksiy Arestovych, said in an interview with a Russian lawyer and activist, Mark Feygin, that Russia and Ukraine had reached an agreement to allow 45 buses to drive to Mariupol to evacuate residents “in coming days.”
Such agreements have been reached before, only to be breached. On Thursday, Russian forces blocked a 45-bus convoy attempting to evacuate people from Mariupol and seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies bound for the city, Ukrainian authorities said.
Zelenskyy said he discussed the humanitarian disaster in Mariupol with French President Emmanuel Macron by telephone and with the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, during her visit to Kyiv on Friday.
“Europe doesn’t have the right to be silent about what is happening in our Mariupol,” Zelenskyy said. “The whole world should respond to this humanitarian catastrophe.”
On the outskirts of Kyiv, signs of fierce fighting were everywhere in the wake of the Russian redeployment. Destroyed armored vehicles from both armies left in streets and fields and scattered military gear covered the ground next to an abandoned Russian tank.
Ukrainian forces recaptured the city of Brovary, 20 kilometers east of the capital, Mayor Ihor Sapozhko said in a televised Friday night address. Shops were reopening and residents were returning but “still stand ready to defend” their city, he added.
“Russian occupants have now left practically all of the Brovary district,” Sapozhko said. “Tonight, (Ukrainian) armed forces will work to clear settlements of (remaining) occupants, military hardware, and possibly from mines.”
Elsewhere, at least three Russian ballistic missiles were fired late Friday at the Odesa region on the Black Sea, regional leader Maksim Marchenko said. The Ukrainian military said the Iskander missiles did not hit the critical infrastructure they targeted.
Odesa is Ukraine’s largest port and the headquarters of its navy.
As the war dragged on, the U.S. Defense Department said Friday night it is providing an additional $300 million in arms to Ukrainian forces.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement that the gear in the new package includes laser-guided rocket systems, unmanned aircraft, armored vehicles, night vision devices and ammunition. Also included are medical supplies, field equipment and spare parts.
There was no immediate word Saturday on the latest round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, which took place Friday by video. During a round of talks earlier in the week, Ukraine said it would be willing to abandon a bid to join NATO and declare itself neutral — Moscow’s chief demand — in return for security guarantees from several other countries.
On Friday, the Kremlin accused Ukraine of launching a helicopter attack on a fuel depot on Russian soil.
Ukraine denied responsibility for the fiery blast at the civilian oil storage facility on the outskirts of the city of Belgorod, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Ukraine border. If Moscow’s claim is confirmed, it would be the war’s first known attack in which Ukrainian aircraft penetrated Russian airspace.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said on Ukrainian television: “For some reason they say that we did it, but in fact this does not correspond with reality.”
Later, in an interview with American TV channel Fox News, Zelenskyy refused to say whether Ukraine was behind the attack.
Karmanau reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Andrea Rosa in Irpin, Ukraine, and Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.