Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed a “historic day”, saying yesterday that military special forces were inside the southern city of Kherson following Russia’s announced retreat.
“Today is a historic day. We are taking back Kherson. As of now, our defenders are on the outskirts of the city. But special units are already in the city,” Zelensky wrote on Telegram, posting video footage that appeared to show Ukrainian troops gathering with residents of the city.
Joyous residents welcomed arriving Ukrainian troops in the centre of Kherson after Russia abandoned the only regional capital it had captured since its invasion in February.
Russia said it had withdrawn 30,000 troops across the Dnipro River without losing a single soldier.
However, Ukrainians painted a picture of a chaotic retreat, with Russian troops ditching their uniforms, dropping weapons and drowning while trying to flee.
The withdrawal marked the third major Russian retreat of the war and the first to involve yielding such a large occupied city in the face of a major Ukrainian counter-offensive that has retaken swathes of the country’s east and south.
Video footage verified by Reuters showed dozens of people cheering and chanting victory slogans in the southern Ukrainian city’s central square, where the apparent first Ukrainian troops to arrive snapped selfies in the throng.
Two men hoisted a female soldier on their shoulders and tossed her into the air.
Some residents wrapped themselves in Ukrainian flags.
One man was weeping with joy.
Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency said Kherson is being restored to Ukrainian control and ordered any remaining Russian troops to surrender to Kyiv’s forces entering the city.
Locals had placed Ukrainian flags in the square as news of the end of more than eight months of occupation filtered out.
“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes! Glory to the Nation!” one man shouted in another video verified by Reuters.
As Ukrainian forces surged forward during one of the most humiliating Russian retreats of the war, villagers came out of hiding and, amid tears of relief and joy, described how Russian troops had killed residents and looted homes.
Reuters could not independently verify the accounts and Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to questions about allegations made by residents of the recaptured village of Blahodatne, 20km (12 miles) north of Kherson.
Serhii Kalko, 43, one of roughly 60 people who stayed in Blahodatne out of a pre-war population of 1,000, was struck by how quiet the final Russian retreat had been.
“They left silently. They didn’t even speak with each other,” he said.
Previously, “there was shooting all the time from three directions”, said a tearful but ecstatic Halyna, a diminutive 81-year-old woman standing beside her rusty bicycle. “But they left two nights ago. Now they need to leave Kherson.”
Serhiy Khlan, a member of Ukraine’s regional council for Kherson, said the regional capital is now almost fully under the control of Ukrainian forces.
A large number of Russian soldiers had drowned in the river trying to escape and others had changed into civilian clothing, he said, advising residents not to leave their homes while searches for remaining Russian troops took place.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian military’s southern command, said “saboteur operations cannot be ruled out” by Russian troops in civilian clothes.
Earlier, the Russian defence ministry said it had finished its withdrawal from the western bank of the Dnipro river, where Kherson city lies, two days after Moscow announced the retreat.
“Not a single unit of military equipment or weapons have been left on the right (western) bank. All Russian servicemen crossed to the left bank,” it added, saying that Russia had not suffered any loss of personnel or equipment.
Ukrainian social media brimmed with celebratory messages and elation.
Many businesses and official institutions, from national mail carrier Ukrposhta to the National Anti-corruption office, inserted images of watermelons into their profiles.
The Kherson region is nationally renowned for its watermelons.