Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russia announced on Thursday that it had started withdrawing troops from a strategic Ukrainian city, creating a potential turning point in a terrible war, while a Ukrainian official warned that Russian landmines could make Kherson a “city of d*ath.”

Ukrainian officials admitted that Moscow forces had no choice but to flee Kherson, but were careful, fearing an ambush. In view of the frozen lips of Ukrainian officials, the absence of reporters and uncertain messages, it was difficult to see what was happening in the port city, where the inhabitants who remained after tens of thousands had fled were afraid to leave their homes.

Forced withdrawal from Kherson – the only provincial capital to be conquered by Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine – would mark one of Russia’s greatest failures during the war. Taking back the city, which had a pre-war population of 280,000, could provide Ukraine with a supply launcher and troops to try to regain other lost territories in the south, including Crimea, which Moscow occupied in 2014.

Ukrainian forces appear to be more successful on the battlefield elsewhere in the Kherson region. The Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, General Valery Zaluzhny, said Kiev forces had moved 36.5 km (22.7 miles) and as of October 1 regained 41 villages and towns in a province that the Kremlin had illegally annexed. This included 12 settlements on Wednesday only.

President’s Ukrainian adviser Mykhailo Podolak said Russian troops had planted mines across Kherson, retreating to turn it into a “city of d*ath” and predicted they would shell it from occupied areas across the Dnieper.

From these new positions, the Kremlin could try to escalate the 8 and a half month war that according to American estimates could already kill or injure tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

Arkadiy Dovzhenko, who fled Kherson in June, said his grandparents told him on Thursday that “the Russians were bringing a lot of equipment into the city and also extracting every inch of it.”

The Ukrainian military reacts when a self-propelled artillery vehicle is ready to fire near Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, Wednesday, November 9, 2022.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered troops to withdraw from Kherson and nearby areas on Wednesday after his highest general in Ukraine announced that the loss of supply routes during Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive made the defense “futile.”

The Shoigu ministry announced on Thursday that there was a “maneuver by Russian group units” on the eastern bank of the Dnieper, also known as its left bank. Some Western observers, including the highest-ranking US military officer, believe that Kremlin forces have been forced to withdraw and that this may take some time.

Ukrainian officials on Thursday seemed to soften skepticism as to whether the Russians were actually fleeing or trying to catch Ukrainian soldiers. “The enemy had no choice but to flee,” said Zaluzhnyi, the chief of the armed forces, as the Kiev army had destroyed supply systems and disrupted Russia’s local military command.

Nevertheless, he said the Ukrainian military could not confirm Russia’s withdrawal.

Alexander Khara of the Kiev-based think tank Center for Defense Strategies shared these concerns, saying he was still concerned that Russian forces might destroy the upstream dam in Kherson and flood the city’s access points. The former Ukrainian diplomat also warned of the pitfalls and other possible dangers left by the retreating Russians.

“I would be surprised if the Russians did not organize something, some surprises for Ukraine,” said Khara.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who a little over a month ago celebrated the annexation of Kherson and three other Ukrainian regions and promised to defend them by all means, did not comment on the withdrawal.

The resident said Kherson was abandoned on Thursday and that the explosions could be heard from around the Antonivskiy Bridge – a key Dnieper crossing that Ukrainian forces b*mbarded repeatedly.

“Life in the city seems to have stopped. Everyone has disappeared somewhere and no one knows what will happen next, said Konstantin, a resident whose name was kept secret for security reasons.

He said Russian flags have disappeared from the city’s administrative buildings, and there is no sign of Russian military personnel having moved into evacuated residents’ apartments earlier. Russia’s state-run Tass news agency said emergency services such as policemen and medical workers will depart after the troops have withdrawn completely.

Halyna Lugowa, head of the Ukrainian administration of the city of Kherson, told Ukrainian television on Thursday that the Russian army was steering vehicles towards the Antonivsky Bridge. Lugov, who is currently in Ukrainian-controlled territory, described the conditions in the city as brutal.

Kherson remains without electricity, heating and Internet access, gas stations in the city are closed and there is no fuel, she said. Medicines for c*ncer and diabetes have also run out in the city. Ukrainian news reports said the Russians had blew up the local TV center, some cell phone towers and the energy infrastructure.

FILE - People with Ukrainian flags walk towards Russian military trucks during a rally against the Russian occupation in Kherson, Ukraine, Sunday, March 20, 2022.

On other occasions, Ukrainian officials were cautious announcing victories over Russian forces that at least initially outstripped and outnumbered Ukraine’s armed forces.

Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum at the international affairs think-tank Chatham House, said the restraint explains “why, as long as the Ukrainians are not in the city, they don’t want to declare that they have control over it.”

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was also cautious. He spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday, and his office said they agreed that “it was right to continue to be cautious until the Ukrainian flag is raised over the city.”

Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that he believes there is a retreat but Russia has amassed up to 30,000 troops in Kherson, and a full withdrawal could take several weeks.

One of the analysts noted that as part of the counteroffensive, the Ukrainian army destroyed bridges and roads, preventing the rapid transfer of Russian troops across the Dnieper.

“The most important question is whether the Ukrainians will give the Russians the opportunity to withdraw quietly, or whether they will fire at them during the crossing to the left bank,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov. “The personnel can be carried out on boats, but the equipment has to be carried out only on barges and pontoons, and this is easily shelled by the Ukrainian army.”

Putin’s allies rushed to defend the retreat as difficult but necessary. However, pro-Kremlin political scientist Sergei Markov broke ranks and described the move as “Russia’s greatest geopolitical loss since the collapse of the Soviet Union” and warned that “the political consequences of this enormous loss will be really great.”

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