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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called the Russian withdrawal from Kherson “the beginning of the end of the war” as he made a surprise tour of the recaptured southern city on Monday.
Addressing crowds of residents who chanted “glory to Ukraine”, President Zelensky declared the recapturing of the city as a huge victory for the country during a nine-month war.
“It is the biggest city which now is free… and so I am happy,” he said, from the main square outside the administrative capital.
“We are moving forward. We are ready for peace, peace for all our country.”
He was photographed posing with troops in a central Kherson square. The end of Russia’s eight-month occupation of Kherson city has sparked days of celebration but also exposed a humanitarian emergency, with residents living without power and water and short of food and medicines.
The Ukrainian leader promised that essential services would be restored and thanks Nato for its help and support.
Russia still controls about 70 per cent of the wider Kherson region.
The president said Russian soldiers who were left behind when their military commanders abandoned the city last week are being detained.
He also spoke, again without details, of the “neutralisation of saboteurs”.
Ukrainian police have called on residents to help identify people who collaborated with Russian forces and urged people in the liberated zone to also be alert for booby traps, saying: “Please, do not forget that the situation in the Kherson region is still very dangerous. First of all, there are mines. Unfortunately, one of our sappers was killed, and four others were injured while clearing mines.”
Earlier, President Zelensky said investigators have uncovered more than 400 war crimes in areas of Kherson abandoned by Russian forces as they retreated.
The liberation of Kherson is the latest in a series of stinging blows for the Kremlin. But the Kremlin maintained on Monday that the city was part of Russia.
“You know, this territory is part of the Russian Federation,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Amid the jubilation, residents in the crowd in Kherson described a “nightmarish” few months during the occupation, without electricity, water and gas, and with soldiers patrolling the streets looking for people who were former soldiers, police or pro-Ukrainian.
“My friend’s son was a volunteer bringing humanitarian aid, he was taken by Russian soldiers in September,” says Olena, 52. “They tortured him for a week, when he came out he was completely broken. Others are missing.”
The story was echoed by several people The Independent spoke to in Kherson.
Local residents gesture as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky visit Kherson
“One of my friends – a veteran is still missing,” Oleg, 49 says. “He tried to escape with a fake passport but we don’t think he made it”.
Many also fear that shelling will start again and get worse as the Russians are on the other side of the River Dnipro. Occasional Explosions sounded in the background on Monday.
The Ukrainian army has now reclaimed three major areas of the country in its counteroffensives – the area north of Kyiv, the northeastern region of Kharkiv and now Kherson and many neighbouring settlements.