Ukraine sees openings as Russia fixed on besieged Mariupol

  • Ukrainian servicemen check for booby traps Saturday in the formerly Russian-occupied Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

KYIV, Ukraine — Residents of Ukraine’s besieged southeastern coast awaited possible evacuation Sunday as the country’s president said Russia’s obsession with capturing a key port city had left it weakened and created opportunities for his military.

Two loud explosions were heard in Odesa on the Black Sea early Sunday and black smoke was seen rising above the city. There was no official information about what caused the explosions in Ukraine’s largest port where its navy is headquartered.

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With Mariupol to the east of Odesa squarely in Russia’s crosshairs, Ukraine insists it has gained a leg up elsewhere in the country, leading to troops retaking territory north of the capital of Kyiv as Russian forces departed.

“Ukraine has gained invaluable time, time that is allowing us to foil the enemy’s tactics and weaken its capabilities,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Saturday.

Inside Mariupol, though, surrounded by Russian forces for more than a month and brutalized by some of the war’s worst attacks, conditions remain dire and prospects for escape uncertain.

About 100,000 people are believed to remain in the Sea of Azov city, less than a quarter its prewar population of 430,000, and dire shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine persist.

Many still in Mariupol await fulfillment of promises to help them reach safety. Among those trying to get residents out was the International Committee of the Red Cross, which still hadn’t reached the city on Saturday, a day after local authorities said it had been blocked by Russian forces.

Some residents escaped on their own, including Tamila Mazurenko, who reached Zaporizhzhia, a city still under Ukrainian control that has served as a hub for other evacuations.

“I have only one question: Why?” she said of her city’s ordeal. “Our normal life was destroyed. And we lost everything. I don’t have any job, I can’t find my son.”

Mariupol is in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region, where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops for eight years. Its capture would create an unbroken land corridor from Russia to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

As Ukrainian troops moved cautiously to retake territory north of Kyiv, the country and its Western allies said Russia is building strength in eastern Ukraine. Where Russian troops recede, Ukraine said it would continue its attacks, shelling and targeting them as they pull out.

“Peace will not be the result of any decisions the enemy makes somewhere in Moscow. There is no need to entertain empty hopes that they will simply leave our land. We can only have peace by fighting,” Zelenskyy said.

Though the geography of the battlefield morphed, little changed for many Ukrainians more than five weeks into a war that has sent more than 4 million people fleeing the country as refugees.

Zelenskyy alleged that as Russian troops have shifted, they’ve left mines around homes, abandoned equipment and even the bodies of the dead. Those claims could not be independently verified, but Ukrainian troops were seen heeding the warning.

In Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Associated Press journalists watched as Ukrainian soldiers, backed by a column of tanks and other armored vehicles, used cables to drag bodies off of a street from a distance for fear they may have been booby-trapped. Locals said the dead — AP counted at least six — were civilians killed without provocation by departing Russian soldiers.

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