By ELENA BECATOROS and HANNA ARHIROVA
IZIUM, Ukraine (AP) — His hand on his heart, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy watched as his country’s flag was hoisted Wednesday above the recently recaptured city of Izium, a rare foray outside the capital that highlighted Moscow’s embarrassing retreat in the face of a lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Russian forces left the war-scarred city last week as Kyiv’s soldiers pressed a stunning advance that has reclaimed large swaths of territory in the country’s northeastern Kharkiv region.
As Zelenskyy looked on and sang the national anthem, the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of the burned-out city hall building in the largely devastated town, where apartment buildings are blackened by fire and pockmarked by artillery strikes. The center of one residential building had collapsed, a gaping hole and piles of rubble where homes used to be.
“The view is very shocking but it is not shocking for me,” Zelenskyy said in brief comments to the press, “because we began to see the same pictures from Bucha, from the first de-occupied territories … the same destroyed buildings, killed people.”
After Russian forces withdrew from Bucha, on the outskirts of the capital of Kyiv, in the early weeks of the war, the bodies of civilians were found dumped in the streets, yards and mass graves. Many bore signs of torture. Moscow’s recent rout in the northeast was its largest military defeat since that withdrawal from the Kyiv area.
Prosecutors said they have found six bodies with traces of torture in recently retaken villages in the Kharkiv region.
“We have a terrible picture of what the occupiers did. … Such cities as Balakliia, Izium are standing in the same row as Bucha, Borodyanka, Irpin,” said Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, listing the names of places where the Ukrainians have alleged Russian forces committed atrocities.
Local authorities have made similar claims in other places formerly held by Russia, but it was not immediately possible to verify their information. They have so far not provided evidence of atrocities on the scale that was seen in Bucha.
The head of the Kharkiv prosecutor’s office, Oleksandr Filchakov, said bodies were found in Hrakove and Zaliznyche, villages around 60 kilometers (35 miles) southeast of Kharkiv.
He said investigators were also learning of residents being killed and buried by Russian troops in another retaken town, Balakliia.
On the northern outskirts of Izium, the remains of Russian tanks and vehicles lay shattered along the road.
Zelenskyy said that as Ukrainian soldiers retook villages, “the life comes back.”
In the wake of the recent gains, a new front line has started to emerge along the Oskil River that largely traces the eastern edge of the Kharkiv region, a Washington-based think thank said Wednesday.
“Russian troops are unlikely to be strong enough to prevent further Ukrainian advances along the entire Oskil River because they do not appear to be receiving reinforcements, and Ukrainian troops will likely be able to exploit this weakness to resume the counteroffensive across the Oskil if they choose,” the Institute for the Study of War said.
The counteroffensive has also left more weapons in Ukrainian hands.
Russian forces likely left behind dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers and other heavy weaponry as they fled Ukraine’s advance in the east of the country, a Ukrainian think tank said Wednesday.
The Center for Defense Strategies said one single Russian unit that was around Izium left behind more than three dozen T-80 tanks and about as many infantry fighting vehicles known by the acronym BMP. Another unit left behind 47 tanks and 27 armored vehicles.
The center said Russian forces tried to destroy some of the abandoned vehicles through artillery strikes as they fell back. Typically, armed forces destroy equipment left behind so their opponent can’t use it.
However, the chaos of the Russian withdrawal apparently saw them leave untouched ammunition and weapons behind.
In other areas, Russia continued its attacks, causing the death toll to keep rising in a war that has dragged on for nearly seven months.
Russian shelling of seven Ukrainian regions over the past 24 hours killed at least seven civilians and wounded 22 more, Ukraine’s presidential office reported on Wednesday morning.
Two people were killed and three wounded after Russia attacked Mykolaiv with S-300 missiles overnight, said regional Gov. Vitaliy Kim. Settlements near the front line in Mykolaiv region remain under constant fire.
The Nikopol area, which is across a river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, was shelled three times during the night, but no injuries were immediately reported, said regional Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko. Nikopol city itself was shelled two times and left almost 3,000 families without electricity. Reznichenko said the electricity has been partially restored.
In the Luhansk region, where some of the Russian troops went after retreating from the Kharkiv region, mobile internet has been shut down, according to the region’s governor Serhiy Haidai, and intense shelling of Ukrainian forces continues.
The fighting continued in the neighboring Donetsk region, where shelling killed five civilians and wounded 16 more. Together, Luhansk and Donetsk make up the Donbas.
“Every night in Donbas is restless. The civilians should leave the region. It’s a matter of life and death,” Donetsk governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Arhirova reported from Kyiva. Associated Press journalist Jon Gambrell in Kyiv contributed.
Follow AP war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine