A full Ukrainian recapture of the Kherson region would disrupt a vital land bridge for Russia between its mainland and the Crimean peninsula

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Friday that Kherson was “ours” after Russia announced the completion of its withdrawal from the regional capital, the only one Moscow captured in nearly nine months of fighting.

“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 footage apparently showing Ukrainian troops gathering with residents.

Ukraine’s parliament had published pictures of people carrying Ukrainian flags in the centre of Kherson, the capital of the eponymous region and close to the Black Sea.

Hours earlier, Russian strikes killed seven people in Mykolaiv, a nearby city in southern Ukraine that the Russians have failed to capture but subjected to months of attack.

“Kherson is returning to Ukrainian control and units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are entering the city,” Kyiv’s defence ministry said on social media.

It added that its artillery teams had clear views over Russia’s routes to retreat and warned: “Any attempts to oppose the Armed Forces of Ukraine will be stopped.”

Russia’s defence ministry said “more than 30,000 Russian servicemen, about 5,000 pieces of hardware and military equipment and materiel have been withdrawn”.

Kherson was the first major urban hub to fall after President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops into Ukraine on February 24.

Ukraine: the situation around Kherson

Its full recapture by Kyiv would be a political and symbolic blow to Putin and open a gateway for Ukraine’s forces to the entire Kherson region, with access to both the Black Sea in the west and Sea of Azov in the east.

“Ukraine is gaining another important victory right now and proves that whatever Russia says or does, Ukraine will win,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on social media.

He posted an amateur video showing Ukrainians removing a billboard near Kherson that proclaimed: “Russia is here forever”.

- ‘In tears’ -

In Ukraine’s capital, the news was met with joy.

Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters inspect a destroyed Russian tank in eastern Ukraine

Wrapped in flags, popping champagne corks and belting out the Ukrainian national anthem, residents of Kherson living in Kyiv gathered in the city’s Maidan square to celebrate.

“I didn’t believe it at first, I thought it was going to take weeks and months, a few hundred metres at a time and now we see them arrive in Kherson in one day, it’s the best surprise,” said Artem Lukiv, 41, a Kherson resident living in Kyiv.

An aerial view of the city of Kherson in May

While it would appear a major Russian setback, the Kremlin insisted that Kherson was still part of Russia and that it did not regret annexing the entire Kherson region at a lavish ceremony in late September.

“This is a subject of the Russian Federation. There are no changes in this and there cannot be changes,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

A full Ukrainian recapture of the Kherson region would disrupt a vital land bridge for Russia between its mainland and the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

- ‘Cynical’ attack -

Ukrainian officials were initially wary after Moscow announced this week that it would pull forces to defensive positions on the east bank of the river in the city.

Kherson was one of four regions in Ukraine that Putin claimed to have annexed during the September ceremony, vowing at the time to use all available methods to defend it.

An AFP journalist in Mykolaiv saw a gaping hole in a Soviet-style residential building

Asked by reporters whether Russia regretted annexing Kherson, Peskov said the Kremlin had “no regrets” about the move.

Earlier on Friday, a Russian strike on a residential building in Mykolaiv killed seven people, regional governor Vitaliy Kim said on social media.

An AFP journalist at the scene saw a gaping hole gouged out of a Soviet-style residential building with emergency workers in yellow helmets on site clearing rubble.

Zelensky branded the strike a “cynical response to our successes at the front”.

He announced late Thursday that his forces had recaptured more than 40 towns and villages in southern Ukraine during a counter-offensive begun in August.

On Thursday, the United States announced a new $400-million security assistance package for Kyiv, including defence systems and surface-to-air missiles.