Ukraine says its troops have regained control of "the whole Kiev region" after Russian forces, which have been conducting a military operation in the ex-Soviet republic since last month, retreated from some key towns near the Ukrainian capital.
“Irpin, Bucha, Gostomel, and the whole Kiev region were liberated…," Ukrainian deputy defense minister, Ganna Maliar, said on Facebook on Saturday, referring to the towns that lie northwest of capital Kiev, AFP reported.
According to reports, as it withdraws from some northern areas, Russia appears to be focusing on eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, where it already holds vast swathes of territory.
"Russia is prioritizing a different tactic: falling back on the east and south," Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhaylo Podolyak, said on social media, adding, "Without heavy weapons we won't be able to drive (Russia) out."
Meanwhile, the general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces on Saturday said the intensity of Russian air and missile strikes had diminished, adding that Moscow continued to withdraw units through the north of Ukraine.
On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” aimed at “demilitarization” of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine. In 2014, the two regions declared themselves new republics, refusing to recognize Ukraine’s Western-backed government.
Announcing the operation, Putin said the mission was aimed at “defending people who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kiev regime.”
The two sides held talks in Istanbul last week, after which Russia said it would significantly reduce military operations near Kiev and the northern city of Chernihiv to promote trust.
Kremlin: Talks with Ukraine not easy, important that they continue
Also on Saturday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said talks with Ukraine had not been easy, but the main thing is that they were continuing, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.
"Ukraine is a very difficult country, very difficult for us. In its current state it is hostile towards us," the agency cited him as telling Belarus television.
He added that Russia would like to continue talks with Ukraine in neighboring Belarus but Kiev had opposed the idea.
Russia and Ukraine held several rounds of talks in Belarus last month before their delegation met in Istanbul.
Ukraine says Russia 'verbally' agreed to Kiev proposals
In another development on Saturday, Ukraine's top negotiator in peace talks with Russia said Moscow had "verbally" agreed to key Ukrainian proposals.
"The Russian Federation has given an official answer to all positions, which is that they accept the [Ukrainian] position, except for the issue of Crimea," David Arakhamia said.
Russia says Ukraine should recognize the loss of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that voted in 2014 in favor of joining the Russian Federation.
He said that while there was "no official confirmation in writing," the Russian side said so "verbally."
Arakhamia added that any meeting between Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin would "with a high probability" take place in Turkey.
Arakhamia said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan "called both us and Vladimir Putin" Friday, saying he would host the meeting.
"Neither the date nor the place is known, but we believe that the place will most likely be Ankara or Istanbul," he added.
Arakhamia said Moscow had agreed in talks that a referendum on the neutral status of Ukraine "will be the only way out of this situation."
The Kremlin has insisted that Ukraine adopt a neutral status by giving up its ambition of joining the Western military alliance of NATO, adopting 'non-bloc' status, renouncing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, and committing not to host foreign troops or military bases on its soil.
Asked what would happen if Ukrainians voted against a neutral status for the country, Arakhamia said "we will either return to a state of war, perhaps, or return to new negotiations."
Zelenskiy: Russia aims to seize east, south of country
Meanwhile, Ukraine's President Zelenskiy on Saturday said Russian forces aimed to seize the east and south of the country.
He also complained that Western nations had not provided Kiev with enough anti-missile systems.
Speaking in a late night video address, Zelenskiy also praised forces defending the besieged port of Mariupol, saying their resistance
was allowing other cities to gain valuable time.
Russia says aid columns cannot reaching Mariupol, blames Red Cross
In a relevant development also on Saturday, Russia's Defense Ministry said aid convoys had not been able to reach the besieged city of
Mariupol on Friday or Saturday, blaming what it called "destructive actions" by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for the delay.
A Red Cross convoy traveling to the Ukrainian port turned around on Friday because it had become impossible to proceed with its mission to begin evacuating civilians, the ICRC said, vowing to try again on Saturday.
Interfax quoted Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, the director of the Russian National Center for Defense Management, as saying the ICRC had shown its inability to provide any help in preparing to evacuate civilians from the city.
Mizintsev said due to the actions of the Red Cross, the convoys had left very late on April 1 and 2 and were not able to reach Mariupol on time.
The Russian general added that on Friday, ICRC employees made unplanned stops en route and some vehicles had broken away from the main convoy and then returned.