Ukraine Says Russian Troops Are Evacuating Civilians From Occupied Territories in the South

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian troops forcibly removed people from an occupied area near the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, a Ukrainian official said on Sunday, suggesting it could indicate that Moscow troops may be preparing to withdraw further from the area ahead of the anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. .

Russian troops withdrew from Kherson in November and moved to just across the Dnipro River, from where they continued to launch frequent attacks on the city. In recent weeks, Ukraine's military has warned that the Russian occupation authorities are preparing to evacuate civilians from areas it still controls in the wider Kherson region ahead of a potential retaliatory offensive.

On Sunday, the head of Ukraine's Kherson regional council, Oleksandr Samoylenko, said the evacuation had started.

“I have information that the evacuation started today under the pretext of protecting civilians from the consequences of the fierce fighting in the area,” Samoylenko said. He said troops were “trying to steal as much as they can” as they retreated.

The statement could not be independently verified, and there was no immediate comment from the Russian authorities. However, at other points in the war, evacuations from Russian-occupied areas had triggered the retreat of Russian troops in the face of Ukrainian advances. And in Moscow's view, Kherson is one of the few Ukrainian regions now officially part of Russia.

Recapturing parts of Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine is widely believed to be one of the potential goals of the anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, and Mr. Samoylenko came when military analysts reported that a small team of Ukrainian troops had newly captured swampy islands on a stretch of the Dnipro River near the city of Kherson, which is in Ukrainian hands.

Citing Russian military bloggers, analysts from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said in a report on Saturday that Ukrainian troops had attacked Russian troops dug in on a riverbank about a mile outside Kherson. And townspeople reached by telephone on Sunday said the Ukrainian military was becoming increasingly active along the river.

Ukrainian officials – who have kept details of the counterattack closely guarded – were tight-lipped about their troop movements on Sunday. Natalia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for the Ukrainian military's southern command, neither confirmed nor denied reports that Ukrainian troops were advancing across the Dnipro River. He said Russian troops “stole everything they could get their hands on: household appliances, factory equipment, even ATM machines,” adding, “Whenever the Russians start stealing everything, it means they are not going back.”

The massive looting occurred before the Russians' sudden withdrawal from the city of Kherson in mid-November. Weeks before they left, the Russians cleared out the city's factories, shipyards, auto dealership, and Kherson's important collection of priceless ancient fine art and artifacts. Ms Humeniuk said that Russian troops were preparing a new line of defense along the river and commanders had brought in the Russian National Guard to keep an eye on other troops and make sure they did not try to desert.

Ukraine's Western allies have stormed out with tanks, field guns and crates of artillery shells ahead of the counteroffensive, though supplies so far have fallen far short of what had been promised, according to classified classified documents.

Meanwhile, Russian troops continued to pound Ukrainian cities with missiles, mortars, artillery fire and airstrikes over the weekend, killing at least one person and destroying homes and critical infrastructure, Ukrainian officials said Sunday.

Damage reports came in from various hot spots: Kherson; Kharkiv, in the northeast; and the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut, in Ukraine's Donbas region, where Russian troops are slowly but steadily advancing. Seizing Bakhmut and the entire Donbas region has been a priority for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“The fierce battle for Bakhmut town continues,” according to one Sunday morning update of the General Staff of the Ukrainian military. But the update emphasized that Bakhmut was not the only target and that Russian troops had rained dozens of airstrikes and many other artillery strikes across the country.

“The threat of further missiles and airstrikes across Ukraine remains high,” said the battlefield update. The Ukrainian report could not be independently verified.

In just two southern regions, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, Russian troops hit more than 30 settlements with mortar and artillery fire over the last 24 hours, according to the update. Ukrainian officials say that in the Zaporizhzhia area, which is partly occupied by Russia, Russian forces are building fortifications, deploying anti-tank guns, and laying multiple mines, in case of a counterattack.

Here's what else happened in Ukraine:

Deadly Mine: The Kherson regional military administration said that a 30-year-old boy in an agricultural town had died after him “find Russian explosives.” The report doesn't provide further details, but it's more than 100 Ukrainians have been killed by mines and other hidden explosives left behind by Russian troops, Ukrainska Pravda news agency reported on Saturday, quoted Ruslan Berehulia, a Ukrainian mine disposal official. The dead included six children, he said.

Ukrainian teams have been deployed to mine-free areas, but experts believe there are still thousands of Russian mines, traveling cables and booby traps hidden across the country. An area more than four times the size of Switzerland unsafe because of landmines, the United Nations estimates. The Ukrainian military has also deployed thousands of antipersonnel mines in apparent violation of international treaties prohibiting their use, according to a report by Human Rights Watchthough not on the scale used by Russia.

Diplomatic Outrage: The Chinese Ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, has caused disappointment in Europe by stating that countries that broke away from the former Soviet Union did not have full status under international law. In an interview with French network TF1 on Friday, Lu was asked whether he thought Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, is part of Ukraine under international law. He noted that Crimea was historically Russia and had been ceded to Ukraine. He added, “Even these countries of the former Soviet Union do not have an effective status in international law, because there is no international treaty that would define their status as sovereign states.”

Mr Lu has a history of belligerent remarks, and his latest comments appear to contradict Beijing's claims it respects the sovereignty of Ukraine and other former Soviet states. China and Ukraine established diplomatic relations in 1992. But China has also echoed Russia's claim that NATO expansion in Eastern Europe prompted Putin to go to war in Ukraine.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, called the comments “absurd” while a spokesman for the French foreign ministry said it would be up to Beijing to clarify whether Lu's comments reflected his position, Reuters reported.

Steven Erlanger And Chris Buckley reporting contribution.