KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned his people early Saturday that retreating Russian forces were creating “a complete disaster” outside the capital as they leave mines across “the whole territory,” including around homes and corpses.
He issued the warning as the humanitarian crisis in the encircled city of Mariupol deepened, with Russian forces blocking evacuation operations for the second day in a row. Meanwhile, the Kremlin accused the Ukrainians of launching a helicopter attack on a fuel depot on Russian soil.
Ukraine denied responsibility for the fiery blast, but if Moscow’s claim is confirmed, it would be the war’s first known attack in which Ukrainian aircraft penetrated Russian airspace.
“Certainly, this is not something that can be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for the continuation of the talks,” Kremlin Dmitry Peskov said, five weeks after Moscow began sending upwards of 150,000 of its own troops across Ukraine’s border.
Russia continued withdrawing some of its ground forces from areas around Kyiv after saying earlier this week it would reduce military activity near the Ukrainian capital and the northern city of Chernihiv.
“They are mining the whole territory. They are mining homes, mining equipment, even the bodies of people who were killed,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address to the nation. “There are a lot of trip wires, a lot of other dangers.”
Ukraine’s military said it had retaken 29 settlements in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions.
Still, Ukraine and its allies warned that the Kremlin is not de-escalating to promote trust at the bargaining table, as it claimed, but instead resupplying and shifting its troops to the country’s east. Those movements appear to be preparation for an intensified assault on the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region in the country’s east, which includes Mariupol.
Zelensky warned of difficult battles ahead as Russia redeploys troops. “We are preparing for an even more active defense,” he said.
He did not say anything about the latest round of talks, which took place Friday by video. At a round of talks earlier in the week, Ukraine said it would be willing to abandon a bid to join NATO and declare itself neutral — Moscow’s chief demand — in return for security guarantees from several other countries.
The invasion has left thousands dead and driven more than 4 million refugees from Ukraine.
Mariupol, the shattered and besieged southern port city, has seen some of the worst suffering of the war. Its capture would be a major prize for Russian President Vladimir Putin, giving his country an unbroken land bridge to Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014.
On Friday, the International Committee for the Red Cross said it was unable to carry out an operation to bring civilians out of Mariupol by bus. City authorities said the Russians were blocking access to the city.
“We do not see a real desire on the part of the Russians and their satellites to provide an opportunity for Mariupol residents to evacuate to territory controlled by Ukraine,” Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
He said Russian forces “are categorically not allowing any humanitarian cargo, even in small amounts, into the city.”
Around 100,000 people are believed to remain in the city, down from a prewar 430,000. Weeks of Russian bombardment and street fighting have caused severe shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine.
“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors that residents in Mariupol have suffered,” Red Cross spokesperson Ewan Watson said.
On Thursday, Russian forces blocked a 45-bus convoy attempting to evacuate people from Mariupol and seized 14 tons of food and medical supplies bound for the city, Ukrainian authorities said.
Zelensky said more than 3,000 people were able to leave Mariupol on Friday.
He said he discussed the humanitarian disaster with French President Emmanuel Macron by telephone and with the president of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, during her visit to Kyiv.
“Europe doesn’t have the right to be silent about what is happening in our Mariupol,” Zelensky said. “The whole world should respond to this humanitarian catastrophe.”
Elsewhere, at least three Russian ballistic missiles were fired late Friday at the Odesa region on the Black Sea, regional leader Maksim Marchenko said. The Ukrainian military said the Iskander missiles did not hit the critical infrastructure they targeted.
Odesa is Ukraine’s largest port and the headquarters of its navy.
As for the fuel depot explosion, Russian Defense Ministry Igor Konashenkov said two Ukrainian helicopter gunships flew in extremely low and attacked the civilian oil storage facility on the outskirt of the city of Belgorod, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) from the Ukraine border.
The regional governor said two workers at the depot were wounded, but the Rosneft state oil company denied anyone was hurt.
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said on Ukrainian television: “For some reason they say that we did it, but in fact this does not correspond with reality.”
Later, in an interview with Fox, Zelensky refused to say whether Ukraine was behind the attack.
On the outskirts of Kyiv, where Russian troops have withdrawn, damaged cars lined the streets of Irpin, a suburban area popular with young families, now in ruins. Emergency workers carried elderly people on stretchers over a wrecked bridge to safety.
Three wooden crosses next to a residential building that was damaged in a shelling marked the graves of a mother and son and an unknown man. A resident who gave her name only as Lila said she helped hurriedly bury them on March 5, just before Russian troops moved in.
“They were hit with artillery and they were burned alive,” she said.
An Irpin resident who gave his name only as Andriy said the Russians packed up their equipment and left on Tuesday. The next day, they shelled the town for close to an hour before Ukrainian soldiers retook it.
“I don’t think this is over,” Andriy said. “They will be back.”