ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine said on Saturday it had seized back all areas around Kyiv, claiming complete control of the capital region for the first time since Russia launched the invasion.
As Russia’s forces regrouped for battles in the east, areas north of Kyiv were littered with destroyed Russian tanks. Ukraine presidential adviser Okeksiy Arestovych said its troops have retaken more than 30 towns and villages since Russia pulled back from the area this week.
Russia has depicted its drawdown of forces near Kyiv as a goodwill gesture in peace talks, which last convened on Friday. Ukraine and its allies say Russia was forced to shift its focus to east Ukraine after suffering heavy losses near Kyiv.
Since sending troops on Feb. 24 in what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarise its neighbour, Russia has failed to capture a single major city and has instead laid siege to urban areas, uprooting a quarter of Ukraine’s population.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister, Hanna Malyar, wrote on Facebook that the “whole Kyiv region is liberated from the invader.” There was no immediate Russian comment on the claim, which Reuters could not immediately verify.
Villages surrounding the capital bear scars of five weeks of heavy fighting in which thousands have been killed.
In the village of Nova Basan, among those retaken by Ukrainian forces, the body of a man lay next to the carcass of a car. A woman wept as men brought a coffin to remove the body.
The village showed signs of heavy fighting, with collapsed buildings and the wreckage of tanks and armoured vehicles strewn around. Another dead body, apparently that of a Russian soldier, lay near a destroyed armoured personnel carrier.
Both sides described talks held this week in Istanbul and by video link as “difficult”.
But a Ukrainian negotiator said that Russia indicated peace treaty drafts were advanced enough to allow direct talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
“They (the Russians) … confirmed our thesis that the draft documents have been worked on enough to allow direct consultations between the leaders of the two countries,” negotiator David Arakhamia told Ukrainian TV, according to Interfax Ukraine.
There was no immediate comment by Russia, which has made no mention of any such talks.
Among those killed near Kyiv was Maksim Levin, a Ukrainian photographer and videographer who was working for a local news website and was a long-time contributor to Reuters.
His body was found in a village north of Kyiv on April 1, the news website LB.ua where he worked said on Saturday.
In the east, a Red Cross convoy was again seeking to evacuate civilians from the besieged port of Mariupol after abandoning an attempt on Friday over security concerns. But it was not expected to reach the port until at least Sunday.
Tens of thousands of civilians remained trapped with scant access to food and water in Mariupol, Russia’s main target in Ukraine’s southeastern region of Donbas.
Some civilians who have escaped Mariupol and reached Zaporizhzhia said Russian soldiers repeatedly stopped them to check for the presence of Ukrainian fighters as they fled.
“They stripped the men naked, looked for tattoos,” said Dmytro Kartavov, a 32-year-old builder, adding that the troops paid particular attention to the men’s knees.
“I work, I do repairs, naturally my knees – these are working knees. They say – (you) climbed trenches, dug, and the like.”
International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson Ewan Watson said its convoy had departed the city of Zaporizhzhia, some 200 kilometres (124 miles) from Mariupol, and would spend the night en route.
Pope Francis came the closest he has yet to criticising Putin over the invasion. He did not name the Russian president but said a “potentate” was fomenting conflicts for nationalist interests.
“Once again, some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, is provoking and fomenting conflicts, while ordinary people sense the need to build a future that will either be shared or not be at all,” he said during a visit to Malta.
Ukrainian officials reported missile strikes in various parts of the country.
In the south-central Dnipro region, a Russian rocket hit a rail line, badly damaging tracks and suspending train traffic, Ukrainian officials said. Earlier, Russian missiles hit the central Ukrainian cities of Poltava and Kremenchuk, said Dmitry Lunin, head of the Poltava region.
Russia’s defence ministry said its missiles had disabled military airfields in Poltava and Dnipro. It later said its forces had hit 28 Ukrainian military facilities across the country, including two depots of rockets and artillery weapons and ammunition.
The Ukrainian military also reported Russian air strikes on the cities of Severodonetsk and Rubizhne in the Luhansk region.
ALCOHOL SALES IN KYIV
In Kyiv, people started buying alcohol again after Mayor Vitali Klitschko relaxed a month-long ban.
Olena, a psychologist who was buying beer in a supermarket, said it did not mean people had forgotten the war.
“We are just supporting our country in this way. No one will be better off if we are depressed, doing nothing,” she said.
“I’m happy because for two weeks I’ve been walking around thinking ‘I want a beer’,” she said, smiling.
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