Kyiv, Ukraine — Ukrainian soldiers worked to secure the city of Kherson and fought Russian forces on its outskirts, the military said on Saturday, a day after its special forces entered the southern port city, amid wild cheers from residents who for months the Russians were exposed to occupation.
The military said Ukrainian forces were clearing mines and explosives left behind by withdrawing Russian forces and looking for Russian soldiers who might be hiding in abandoned houses.
Although Russia’s Defense Ministry announced on Friday that all of its forces had withdrawn from the city and moved into new positions on the east bank of the Dnieper River, Ukraine’s military intelligence said on Saturday that soldiers were still in permanent defensive positions and that it was unclear whether they would fight, flee, or surrender.
“Time will tell,” the agency said.
It was unclear how many soldiers were left behind as the Russians retreated, and how many could be part of an organized force aimed at slowing the Ukrainian advance.
Natalia Gumeniuk, the spokeswoman for the Southern Command of the Ukrainian military, said that some Russian soldiers in and around the city of Kherson were still actively collaborating with Ukrainian forces. There are also reports of Russian soldiers surrendering to the Ukrainians.
“It’s very difficult to say at this point how many forgotten soldiers there are,” she said in an interview with Freedom TV, a Russian-language channel in Ukraine that focuses on broadcasts abroad.
She added that Ukrainian forces are “a stone’s throw away” from Russian forces, which are fortifying positions across the Dnieper, leaving Kiev’s forces vulnerable to artillery fire. The Ukrainian military also reported fighting in towns and villages outside of Kherson City, including around a critical dam in the town of Nova Kakhovka.
In Kherson, the city’s residents were still processing fast-moving events. Just a day earlier they had hidden their Ukrainian flags from Russian soldiers. On Saturday, they wrapped themselves in its blue and gold.
“People are taking to the streets and congratulating each other,” Serhiy, a pensioner in Kherson who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons, said Saturday morning. “It’s just a holiday!”
“My family and I were in the city center, we saw our soldiers, but I think it’s still quite dangerous,” he said. “Explosions can still be heard not far away.”
Ukrainian soldiers in the city were equally moved.
A soldier from the Ukrainian special forces in the city, who remained anonymous for security reasons, described the moment as an explosion of emotions. He said he was thinking about how much work had been done over the past eight months to bring about the events of the past two days and how many soldiers had died in the process.
The magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in the region only began to emerge on Saturday. Many people in Kherson have neither heating nor electricity nor running water. Food and medicine are scarce. But Ukrainian military officials said the city is not yet safe for a large-scale humanitarian relief effort.
Police officers joined the soldiers clearing mines and booby traps in the city.
National Police Chief Ihor Klymenko said an officer was injured when an explosive device left by Russian forces at a government building detonated. He urged residents who had left the city not to return until “stabilization measures” were completed.
Communications towers along the west bank of the Dnipro River were destroyed by Russian forces before retreating, military officials said, and it could take weeks to repair the network.
With cell phone connections limited, Iryna Mezentseva, 42, and her husband Volodymyr Kosiuk, 50, on Saturday kept their text messages to The New York Times from Kherson short: They were alive.
Tetiana Fomin, an activist working for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities in the western city of Lviv, said she has not been able to reach her mother and sister in Kherson since Wednesday.
Although she doesn’t know if they are still alive, she said she is preparing to go to Kherson.
“We’re filling a bus with humanitarian aid and we’re preparing to do so as soon as it’s allowed,” she said.
Maria Varenikova and Anna Lukinova contributed reporting.