Excitement scene as Ukrainian soldiers enter Kherson city hours after Russian withdrawal

'Today is a historic day. We took Kherson back,' said President Zelensky

Joyful residents waved flags and welcomed Ukrainian troops into central Kherson on Friday following the withdrawal of Russian troops, marking a major strategic victory for Kyiv over Moscow.

"Today is a historic day," President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an evening video address. "We got back the south of the country, we got Kherson back."

Cheering residents chanted victory slogans in the southern city center square, where the first Ukrainian troops to arrive took selfies in the crowd. Video shared on Ukraine's Telegram group showed crowds chanting "glory to ZSU", an acronym for Ukraine's armed forces.

There were similar celebrations across Ukraine when the country's defense intelligence agency said Kyiv had seized control of an area that had been held by Russian troops since March.

He urged Russian soldiers who might still be in the city to surrender. "Your orders leave you at the mercy of fate," the agency said.

News of the potential defining moment in the nine-month conflict comes just hours after Russia said its troops had finished withdrawing from the west bank of the Dnipro river that divides the Kherson region in two.

Russia says it has withdrawn 30,000 troops without losing a single soldier. But the Ukrainians painted a chaotic picture of decline, with Russian troops shedding their uniforms, dropping weapons and even drowning while trying to escape.

The withdrawal, which came two months after Russian troops withdrew from the Kharkiv region in eastern Ukraine, is another major setback to the invasion Moscow launched in February.

Yuri Sak, a senior adviser to the defense ministry, told The Independent that it was "an important moment for our morale and our struggle for our country".

He said the counteroffensive in the south had been "well planned" and based on "careful reconnaissance and intelligence" but the fight was not over.

"This is far from over, there are still tens of thousands of Russians in the south," he said.

Kherson was one of the Kremlin's first targets when the invasion was launched due to its strategic location on the border with Crimea, which President Putin illegally annexed in 2014.

The capture of a swath of Kherson Oblast allows a land bridge to the Black Sea peninsula which is home to Russia's massive military power and Black Sea fleet.

The main city of Kherson is also the last remaining regional capital that the Kremlin has captured and held in Ukraine since the start of the invasion. His defeat dealt a significant blow after Russia “annexed” the region in a high-level ceremony held in Moscow in September.

Dozens of cities across the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions were also liberated on Thursday and Friday as Ukrainian troops advanced cautiously amid news of Moscow's withdrawal.

The Independent met with civilians returning to heavily shelled areas, where nearby towns had been emptied for the first time since the start of the war.

In Kobzartsi, next to the recently liberated town of Snihurivka, an elderly resident whose wife died of a heart attack during the fierce Russian bombing of the village in March, returned for the first time to inspect her home since she was evacuated eight months ago.

“Everything is destroyed, everything is gone,” Serhiy, 66, said in tears. "All that's left is to pay homage to my wife's grave."

Another resident said that the bombing had only stopped two days earlier when Snihurivka was liberated and Russian troops were pushed back. "People are trying to go back to Snihurivka but there are still a lot of mines," said Natasha, 45, who lives in Kobzartsi despite eight months of attacks.

The general staff of the Ukrainian military remained cautious despite news of Friday's progress, writing on Facebook that "advanced units have reached the west bank of the Dnipro river in parts of the Kherson region".

"Measures to identify and destroy the enemy in a number of settlements are ongoing," the statement said. "Due to the safety of the operation, an official release of the results will be provided at a later date."

The army added that Russia was strengthening its defensive line on the eastern bank of the Dnipro river, where their troops had withdrawn. Local military officials said, on condition of anonymity, that they expected Russia to start shelling the areas they had just left. 

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