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Red Cross tries to reach besieged Mariupol as Russia retreats from northern Ukraine

At least 5,000 residents killed in port city, as over 160,000 remain without food, water, electricity; Kyiv suburb recaptured; toll in strike on Mykolaiv gov’t building rises to 33

A child is helped off a bus at the registration center in  Zaporizhzhia, where the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had a team of three cars and nine staff waiting to head out towards the besieged city of Mariupol from Zaporizhzhia, more than 200 kilometres away on April 1, 2022. (Emre Caylak / AFP)
A child is helped off a bus at the registration center in Zaporizhzhia, where the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had a team of three cars and nine staff waiting to head out towards the besieged city of Mariupol from Zaporizhzhia, more than 200 kilometres away on April 1, 2022. (Emre Caylak / AFP)

Ukraine on Saturday said Russian forces were making a “rapid retreat” from northern areas around the capital Kyiv and the city of Chernihiv as the Red Cross prepared for a fresh evacuation effort from the besieged southern port of Mariupol.

Ukraine said Russian forces were concentrating in the east and south, a day after thousands of people from Mariupol and surrounding Russian-held areas escaped in a convoy of buses and private cars.

“Russia is prioritizing a different tactic: falling back on the east and south,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said on social media.

He said that while Russian forces appeared to be pulling back from Kyiv and Chernihiv, their aim was to “control a vast stretch of occupied territory and set up there in a powerful way.”

Podolyak said Russian forces would “dig in there, set up air defense, drastically reduce losses and dictate terms.

Moscow’s aim was to “drastically reduce losses & dictate terms,” he said on Twitter on Saturday.

“Without heavy weapons we won’t be able to drive (Russia) out.”

Damage is seen on apartment buildings after shelling from fighting on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, in territory under control of the separatist government of the Donetsk People’s Republic, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

‘Our city doesn’t exist anymore’

Mariupol has been an important Ukrainian hold-out, suffering weeks of Russian shelling, with at least 5,000 residents killed, local officials said.

The estimated 160,000 who remain face shortages of food, water and electricity.

“We have managed to rescue 6,266 people, including 3,071 people from Mariupol,” Zelensky said in a video address earlier on Saturday.

Dozens of buses carrying Mariupol residents who had escaped the devastated city arrived Friday in Zaporizhzhia, 200 kilometers (120 miles) to the northwest, according to an AFP reporter on the scene.

The buses carried people who had been able to flee Mariupol to Russian-occupied Berdiansk.

“We were crying when we reached this area. We were crying when we saw soldiers at the checkpoint with Ukrainian crests on their arms,” said Olena, who carried her young daughter in her arms.

“My house was destroyed. I saw it in photos. Our city doesn’t exist anymore.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said its team headed to Mariupol to try and conduct an evacuation was forced to turn back Friday after “arrangements and conditions made it impossible to proceed.”

The ICRC said it would try again on Saturday.

A screen capture from a video said to show the destruction in Mariupol caused by the Russian siege and bombardment of the southern Ukrainian city, March 2022. (Twitter)

Mykolaiv toll rises

At least 33 people were killed and 34 injured in a Russian rocket strike on the regional government building in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv. Ukrainian officials gave the latest death toll in a statement Saturday, updating the numbers of the deadly strike that hit Mykolaiv on Tuesday.

Rescuers sent by the State Emergency Service have been searching the wreckage for survivors since Russian forces struck the building, which housed the office of regional governor Vitaliy Kim. The governor, who was not on the premises at the time of the attack, later posted social media images showing a gaping hole in the nine-story structure.

The confirmed death toll has risen steadily as the search and rescue operation continues.

Mykolaiv, a strategically important city en route to Ukraine’s largest port of Odesa, has withstood weeks of shelling by the Russian forces.

The regional government headquarters of Mykolaiv, Ukraine, following a Russian attack, March 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Brovary recaptured

Ukrainian officials said their forces have recaptured the city of Brovary, 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of the capital Kyiv.

Brovary’s mayor said during a televised address on Friday evening that “Russian occupants have now left practically all of the Brovary district.” He added that the Ukrainian forces would begin working to clear the region of remaining Russian soldiers there as well as “military hardware, and possibly from mines.”

The mayor said that many Brovary residents had already returned to the city, and that shops and businesses were reopening.

Earlier on Friday, Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko said that satellite towns northwest of Kyiv were being targeted after Ukrainian fighters pushed back Russian troops, and that fighting had also taken place in Brovary.

A villager walks next to a destroyed Russian tank near the front line in Brovary, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, March 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

New US aid

Peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow resumed via video on Friday, but the Kremlin warned that what it described as a helicopter attack on a fuel depot inside Russia would hamper negotiations.

“This is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of negotiations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

The airstrike hit energy giant Rosneft’s fuel storage facility in Belgorod, 40 kilometers from the Ukraine border.

But Kyiv would not be drawn on whether it was behind the attack, with Zelensky telling US network Fox News: “I’m sorry, I do not discuss any of my orders as commander in chief.”

He said Russia was consolidating and preparing “powerful strikes” in the east and south, joining Western assessments that Moscow’s troops were regrouping, not withdrawing.

In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, April 2, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Ukraine also warned that Russian forces who left the Chernobyl nuclear plant — site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, in 1986 — after weeks of occupation may have been exposed to radiation.

“Russia behaved irresponsibly in Chernobyl” by digging trenches in contaminated areas and keeping plant personnel from performing their duties, said Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Zelensky meanwhile repeated his plea for the West to provide greater military support.

“Just give us missiles. Give us airplanes,” he told Fox. “You cannot give us F-18 or F-19 or whatever you have? Give us the old Soviet planes. That’s all… Give me something to defend my country with.”

The Pentagon later said it was allotting $300 million in “security assistance” to bolster Ukraine’s defense capabilities, adding to the $1.6 billion Washington has committed since Russia invaded in late February.

‘Where roses used to bloom’

A ferocious Ukrainian fightback and Russia’s logistics and tactical problems have hampered Russian efforts and there is growing concern inside the country as military losses mount.

Russia on Friday launched its annual military draft but vowed that conscripts would not be sent to fight in Ukraine.

Referring to the draft, Zelensky urged Russian families not to send their children to war.

“Don’t let them join the army. It’s not their war. We don’t need any more deaths,” he said.

Civilians have trickled out of devastated areas after arduous and daring escapes.

Ukrainian soldiers approach a trench that had been used by Russian soldiers as they retake an area on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Three-year-old Karolina Tkachenko and her family walked an hour through a field strewn with burnt-out Russian armored vehicles to flee their village outside Kyiv.

“The shops are closed, there’s no delivery of supplies. The bridge is also blown up, we can’t go for groceries through there,” said Karolina’s mother Karina Tkachenko.

In Mariupol, Viktoria Dubovytskaya, who had sheltered in the theatre where 300 people are feared to have been killed in Russian bombardments, said she only grasped the extent of the destruction as she fled.

Bodies lay in the rubble and small wooden crosses were planted in the ground, she told AFP.

“When people find their loved ones, they just bury them wherever they can. Sometimes where roses used to bloom,” she said.

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