By Simon Gardner, Zohra Bensemra and Abdelaziz Boumzar
BUCHA, Ukraine (Reuters) – As Ukraine claimed its forces had taken over all areas around kyiv, the mayor of a liberated town said 300 residents had been killed during a month-long army occupation Russian and that victims had been seen in a mass grave and still lying in the streets.
Ukrainian troops have retaken more than 30 towns and villages around kyiv, Ukrainian officials said on Saturday, claiming complete control of the capital region for the first time since Russia launched its invasion.
In Bucha, a town neighboring Irpen, just 37 km (23 miles) northwest of the capital, Reuters reporters saw bodies lying in the streets, and the hands and feet of several corpses sticking out of a grave still open on the grounds of a church.
After five weeks of fighting, Russia withdrew forces that had threatened kyiv from the north to regroup for battles in eastern Ukraine.
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“The whole Kyiv region is liberated from the invader,” Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar wrote on Facebook. There was no Russian comment on the claim, which Reuters could not immediately verify.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned in a video address: “They are mining all this territory. Houses are mined, equipment is mined, even the bodies of dead people.” He did not cite evidence.
Ukraine’s emergency service said more than 1,500 explosives were found in a day during a search in the village of Dmytrivka, west of the capital.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the mining allegations. Reuters could not independently verify them.
Russia denies targeting civilians and denies war crimes allegations.
But in Bucha, Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said more than 300 residents had been killed. Many residents tearfully remembered their brush with death and cursed the dead Russians.
“The bastards!” Vasily, a 66-year-old grizzled man said, crying with rage as he looked at more than a dozen bodies lying on the road outside his house. “I’m sorry. The tank behind me was firing. Dogs!”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she was appalled by the atrocities committed in Bucha and expressed her support for the International Criminal Court’s investigation into possible war crimes.
Since launching on February 24 what President Vladimir Putin called a “special military operation” to demilitarize its neighbor, Russia has failed to capture a single major city and has instead besieged urban areas, uprooting a quarter of the Ukrainian population.
Ukraine’s armed forces reported a decrease in Russian air and missile strikes, although in the early hours of Sunday a Reuters witness heard a series of explosions and saw smoke rising in the southern port city of ‘Odessa.
Russia has described its withdrawal of forces near kyiv as a gesture of goodwill in the peace talks. Ukraine and its allies say Russia was forced to focus on eastern Ukraine after suffering heavy losses.
Both sides have described the talks held this week in Istanbul and via video link as “difficult”. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Saturday that “the main thing is that the talks continue, either in Istanbul or elsewhere.”
A new round of talks has yet to be announced. But Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia said on Saturday enough progress had been made to allow direct talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Zelenskiy.
“The Russian side has confirmed our thesis that the draft documents have been elaborated enough to allow direct consultations between the leaders of the two countries,” Arakhamia said. Russia has not commented on this possibility.
Among those killed near kyiv was Maksim Levin, a Ukrainian photographer and videographer who worked for a news site and was a longtime contributor to Reuters.
His body was found on April 1 in a village north of kyiv, the LB.ua news site where he worked said on Saturday.
In the east, a Red Cross convoy was again seeking to evacuate civilians from the beleaguered port of Mariupol after abandoning an attempt on Friday for security reasons. It was not expected to reach the city until at least Sunday. Russia blamed the ICRC for the delays.
Mariupol is Russia’s main target in the Donbass region of southeastern Ukraine, and tens of thousands of civilians are trapped there with limited access to food and water.
Ukraine’s armed forces reported a decrease in Russian air and missile strikes, although in the early hours of Sunday missiles struck the southern port city of Odessa, the city council said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its missiles disabled military airfields in Poltava, central Ukraine, and Dnipro, further south. He later said his forces struck 28 Ukrainian military installations across the country, including two arms depots.
The Ukrainian military also reported Russian airstrikes on the towns of Severodonetsk and Rubizhne in Luhansk, one of two southeastern regions where pro-Russian separatists declared breakaway states days before the invasion.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Mukachevo, Ukraine, Alessandra Prentice and Reuters bureaus; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Stephen Coates)
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