KYIV, Ukraine — As Russian forces pull back from Ukraine’s capital region, retreating troops are creating a “catastrophic” situation for civilians by leaving mines around homes, abandoned equipment and “even the bodies of those killed,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned Saturday.
Ukraine and its Western allies reported mounting evidence of Russia withdrawing its forces from around Kyiv and building its troop strength in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian fighters reclaimed several areas near the capital after forcing the Russians out or moving in after them, officials said.
The visible shift did not mean the country faced a reprieve from more than five weeks of war or that the more than 4 million refugees who have fled Ukraine will return soon. Zelenskyy said he expects departed towns to endure missile strikes and rocket strikes from afar and for the battle in the east to be intense.
Photojournalist found dead
A prominent Ukrainian photojournalist who went missing last month in a combat zone near the capital has been found dead.
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office said in a statement Saturday that Maks Levin was killed with two gunshots, fired allegedly by the Russian military. Levin’s body was found in the Huta Mezhyhirska village on Friday.
Levin, 40, worked as a photojournalist and videographer for many Ukrainian and international publications.
Levin has been missing since March 13, when he contacted his friend from Vyshhorod near Kyiv to report on the fighting in the region.
An investigation into his death has been launched.
Blasts near nuclear plant
A series of blasts has torn through the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar nearby the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Ukraine’s state nuclear agency reported about Saturday’s attacks on its official Telegram channel.
Both the city and the plant, which generates over a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity and is one of the largest nuclear facilities in Europe, have been under Russian control since March 4, according to Interfax Ukraine.
A video clip accompanying the Telegram post by Ukraine’s Energoatom appeared to feature loud blasts and flying debris.
A second post on the state enterprise’s channel claimed that explosions and mortar bursts could be heard in the vicinity of the Sovremennik cultural center, where residents held a rally in support of Ukraine.
“As protesters began to disperse, the invaders arrived in police vehicles, and began to force local residents into them,” the post read. “A few minutes later, the city was rocked by massive explosions and shelling.”
The agency said that four people were injured and received medical assistance.
Energoatom also claimed that Russian forces began to jam phone and internet communications throughout Enerhodar. The agency’s claims could not be immediately verified.
Finland and NATO
Finland’s prime minister says her country should make a decision on NATO membership “during this spring” after the government and lawmakers have carefully assessed the pros and cons of joining the military alliance – a topical issue in the Nordic nation after Russia’s invasion to Ukraine.
Prime Minister Sanna Marin said Saturday that “both joining (NATO) and not joining are choices that have consequences. We need to assess both the short-term and long-term effects. At the same time, we must keep in mind our goal: ensuring the security of Finland and Finns in all situations.”
Marin said Finland’s relationship with neighboring Russia has changed irreversibly after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last month, and “it takes a lot of time and work for confidence to be restored.”
Finland shares a 1,340-kilometer (830-mile) border with Russia, the longest by any European Union member.
Poland and refugees
Poland’s government says it has issued over 625,000 national identification numbers to Ukrainian refugees since Russia launched its invasion.
The ID number, something all Polish citizens have, gives people the right to access health care, schooling or other state services. Poland, the country that has accepted the largest numbers of Ukrainian refugees, decided recently to extend those rights to Ukrainians fleeing war.
More than 4 million Ukrainians have so far fled, and more than 2.4 of them have crossed into Poland. Others have fled into Romania, Moldova, Slovakia and Hungary.
It is not clear, however, exactly how many of them stay in the countries they first arrive in, and how many move on to other places, such as Germany, Italy and Spain.
Paweł Szefernaker, a deputy interior minister who was appointed Saturday as a special plenipotentiary to handle Ukrainian war refugees, said at a news conference that 625,000 Ukrainian refugees had received the Polish ID number, known as a PESEL.
That is an indication that at least that many intend to remain in Poland, at least until the war ends. The number is likely higher as people continue to submit applications and people keep fleeing the war.
Italy and Russian gas
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, visiting Azerbaijan, has described his talks there as laying the bases for even stronger cooperation on energy, as Italy seeks to quickly reduce its heavy reliance on Russian gas.
In comments to reporters in Baku on Saturday, Di Maio described Azerbaijan, which is Italy’s largest supplier of oil and third-largest supplier of gas, as a “priority partner” in Italy’s quest to diversify its sources of energy.
Di Maio arrived in the South Caucasus country on Friday, following previous energy-focused missions to Algeria, Qatar, Angola and Congo. Italy is eyeing the possibility of increasing the supply of natural gas from Azerbaijan through the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, or TAP, which transported its first gas in 2020.
Arrest warrant for Putin
The former chief prosecutor of the UN war crimes tribunals has called for an international arrest warrant to be issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Putin is a war criminal,” Carla Del Ponte told Swiss newspaper Le Temps in an interview published Saturday.
In interviews given to Swiss media to mark the release of her latest book, the Swiss lawyer who oversaw U.N. investigations in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, said there were clear war crimes being committed in Ukraine.
She said she was particularly shocked by the use of mass graves, which recalls the worst of the wars in former Yugoslavia.
“I hoped never to see mass graves again,” she told the newspaper Blick. “These dead people have loved ones who don’t even know what’s become of them. That is unacceptable.”
Other war crimes she identified in Ukraine included attacks on civilians, the destruction of civilian buildings and even that of entire towns.
Red Cross tries to get to Mariupol
The International Committee of the Red Cross says a team of nine staffers is trying to get to the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol again after it had to abandon an earlier attempt when conditions on the ground made it impossible to proceed.
The humanitarian group said the team with three vehicles was on the way to help facilitate the safe passage of civilians on Saturday after a failed attempt Friday.
The group said in a statement late Friday it would try to accompany a convoy of civilians out from Mariupol to another city in Ukraine.
It said that, “our presence will put a humanitarian marker on this planned movement of people, giving the convoy additional protection and reminding all sides of the civilian, humanitarian nature of the operation.”
Mariupol, which was surrounded by Russian forces a month ago, has been the scene of some of the war’s worst attacks, including on a maternity hospital and a theater sheltering civilians. Around 100,000 people are believed to remain in the city, down from a prewar population of 430,000, and facing dire shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
City officials said some 2,000 made it out of Mariupol on Friday, some on buses and some in their own vehicles.
Russian strike on Mykolaiv
At least 33 people have been 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.
Space station troubles
Russia’s top space official says the future of the International Space Station hangs in the balance after the United States, the European Union, and Canadian space agencies missed a deadline to meet Russian demands for the lifting of sanctions on Russian enterprises and hardware.
The head of Russia’s Roscosmos state agency told reporters on Saturday morning that the agency was preparing a report on the prospects of international cooperation at the station, to be presented to federal authorities “after Roscosmos has completed its analysis.”
Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin implied on Russian state TV that the Western sanctions, some of which predate Russia’s military action in Ukraine, could disrupt the operation of Russian spacecraft servicing the ISS.
He stressed that the Western partners need the ISS and “cannot manage without Russia, because no one but us can deliver fuel to the station.”
Rogozin added that “only the engines of our cargo craft are able to correct the ISS’s orbit, keeping it safe from space debris.”
Later on Saturday, Rogozin wrote on his Telegram channel that he received responses from his Western counterparts vowing to promote “further cooperation on the ISS and its operations.”
He reiterated his view that “the restoration of normal relations between partners in the ISS and other joint (space) projects is possible only with the complete and unconditional lifting” of sanctions, which he referred to as illegal.
Responding to Western sanctions on Telegram last month, Rogozin warned at the time that without Russia’s help, the ISS could “fall down into the sea or onto land,” and claimed that the crash site was unlikely to be in Russia.
Space is one of the last remaining areas of cooperation between Moscow and Western nations. U.S.-Russian negotiations on the resumption of joint flights to the ISS were underway when Russia launched its military operation in Ukraine last month, prompting unprecedented sanctions on Russian state-linked entities.
Turkey to help civilians
Turkey has offered to help evacuate civilians from the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol by ship. The Turkish defense minister said Saturday that “we can provide ship support for the evacuation of civilians and injured Turkish and other countries’ citizens in Mariupol from the sea.”
State-run Anadolu Agency reported that Hulusi Akar said Turkey was coordinating possible evacuations with the authorities of the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. The International Committee for the Red Cross is attempting to remove some of the 100,000 people are believed to remain in the city.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Friday that some 30 Turkish nationals were still in the city.
Pope may visit Kyiv
Pope Francis says he is studying a possible visit to Kyiv and he blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for launching a “savage” war, as he arrived in Malta and delivered his most pointed and personalized denunciation yet of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Francis didn’t cite Putin by name, but the reference was clear when he said that “some potentate” had unleashed the threat of nuclear war on the world in an “infantile and destructive aggression” under the guise of “anachronist claims of nationalistic interests.”
Speaking to Maltese authorities Saturday, Francis said: “We had thought that invasions of other countries, savage street fighting and atomic threats were grim memories of a distant past.” Francis has to date avoided referring to Russia or Putin by name. But Saturday’s personalization of the powerful figure responsible marked a new level of outrage for the pope.