Missiles hit Ukraine's Odesa region and there are casualties, says governor

Russian troops from Georgia to be redeployed as invasion reinforcements • At least 300 Syrian mercenaries to join Russia against Ukraine

 A Ukrainian service member patrols an area in a village near a frontline, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv Region, Ukraine March 31, 2022. (photo credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters)
A Ukrainian service member patrols an area in a village near a frontline, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv Region, Ukraine March 31, 2022.
(photo credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters)

Three missiles hit a residential area near the Ukrainian southern port city of Odesa on Friday, the local governor Maksym Marchenko said in a video posted online, adding there were casualties.

"The enemy has just carried out a strike with three missiles on a settlement," he said, without sharing an estimate of the casualty toll.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Ukrainian forces have recaptured the town of Bucha, near the capital Kyiv, its mayor said on Friday.

"March 31 will go down in the history of our town... as the day of its liberation from Russian (forces)," Mayor Anatolii Fedoruk said in a video which appeared to be filmed outside Bucha's town hall.

"Huge" battles are being fought to the north and east of Kyiv, the mayor of the Ukrainian capital said on Friday.

"The risk of dying (in Kyiv) is pretty high, and that's why my advice to anyone who wants to come back is: Please, take a little bit more time," Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko said, issuing a warning to residents who have fled the capital.

Ukrainian forces have continued to make gains against Russian troops, launching counter-attacks near Kyiv against the Russian military and recapturing villages around Chernihiv, according to a British defense intelligence update from early Friday morning.

The intelligence report noted that the villages of Sloboda and Lukashivka were recaptured, both of which are located on a key supply route between Chernihiv and Kyiv.

Both cities have been subjected to ongoing bombardments and airstrikes by Russian forces, though Moscow has claimed that their troop activity in the area is being reduced.

Russian forces have established a deployment cite at a church northwest of Kyiv and are using it as a staging ground as part of their assault on the Ukrainian capital, a senior US administration official said on Friday.

"Military personnel are situated both on the grounds of the church and the surrounding residential area," the official said on condition of anonymity and without citing evidence. The official said the information was based on declassified intelligence.

"We believe the Russian military is using this staging point as part of its assault on Kyiv," the official said.

Russia's defense ministry on Friday said two Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopters were responsible for an attack on a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, but it added that the facility did not supply fuel to the military.

In its statement, the ministry said the two helicopters attacked after crossing the border at an extremely low altitude.

After failing to capture a single major Ukrainian city in five weeks of war, Russia says it is pulling back from northern Ukraine and shifting its focus to the southeast, including Mariupol.

Russia has painted its draw-down in the north of Ukraine as goodwill gesture for peace talks. Ukraine and its allies say the Russian forces have been forced to regroup after sustaining heavy losses due to poor logistics and tough Ukrainian resistance.

Over the past 10 days, Ukrainian forces have recaptured suburbs near Kyiv, broken the siege of Sumy in the east and driven back Russian forces advancing on Mykolaiv in the south.

Ukrainian forces have also repelled seven attacks in the direction of Donetsk and Luhansk in the contested Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Further, over the past 24 hours, Ukrainian troops have destroyed three Russian tanks, two armored personnel carriers, two artillery systems and one Orlan-10 drone, according to the military.

Russian troops have also begun partially withdrawing from the Kyiv Oblast and heading towards Belarus, including leaving Hostomel, where there is an airport. However, the military is also accusing withdrawing Russian soldiers of taking stolen civilian property and vehicles with them.

However, despite Ukrainian counterattacks and Russian talks of shifting their forces away from the capital, the Pentagon in a press briefing stressed that "Kyiv is still very much under threat from airstrikes."

Further, residents of the cities and villages in the Kyiv Oblast that have been retaken by Ukrainian forces were told by the Interior Ministry not to return home just yet, as there are concerns of Russian forces having left behind landmines, Ukrinform reported.

Russian forces are withdrawing from the Chernihiv region of northern Ukraine but have not yet left entirely, the local governor said in a video address on Friday.

"Air and missile strikes are (still) possible in the region, nobody is ruling this out," Governor Viacheslav Chaus said, adding that Ukrainian forces were entering and securing settlements previously held by Russian troops.

Chaus said it was still too early for Ukrainian forces in the Chernihiv region to let their guard down as Russian troops "are still on our land."  

Russians leave Chernobyl

All Russian forces have reportedly left the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and exclusion zone as of late Thursday evening, Interfax reported. Most troops had already left on Thursday, though the Ukrainian official responsible for the exclusion zone said that witnesses still spotted some Russians in the area on Friday.

Yevhen Kramarenko confirmed on national television that the Russian forces that occupied the power station after invading Ukraine on Feb. 24 had left the plant itself but said some troops had been seen in the exclusion zone outside the territory of the decommissioned power station.

However, despite reports of them leaving, the Russian forces were accused of engaging in widespread looting, stealing equipment and other valuables.

Russian troops were reported by Ukraine's nuclear agency Energoatom to have dug trenches in the forest in the exclusion zone, which is among the most heavily irradiated areas at the site. This has resulted in Russian troops needing to be pulled out after being exposed to heavy radiation, Interfax reported.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, which continues to impact the environment today.

Fighting in the South and East

Despite these gains, the fighting continues, especially in the South and East. A briefing by the Pentagon highlighted the areas around the major cities of Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and especially Mariupol, which have been undergoing near-constant bombardments and attacks by Russian forces.

The besieged city of Mariupol is undergoing a severe humanitarian crisis due to the shortage of key supplies such as water, food, electricity and medicine. Humanitarian aid shipments sent to relieve the city have yet to arrive. 

An aide to the mayor of Mariupol said on Friday the besieged southern Ukrainian city remained closed for anyone trying to enter and was "very dangerous" for anyone trying to leave.

Petro Andryushchenko said Russian forces had since Thursday been preventing even the smallest amount of humanitarian supplies from reaching trapped residents, making clear a planned "humanitarian corridor" had not been opened.

"The city remains closed to entry and very dangerous to exit with personal transport," he said on the Telegram messaging app.

"In addition, since yesterday the occupiers have categorically not allowed any humanitarian aid - even in small quantities - into the city."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is sending teams to the besieged port city of Mariupol and is "hopeful" that evacuations of thousands of civilians can begin on Friday, a spokesperson said at a press briefing.

"We have permission to move today and we are en route to Mariupol," ICRC spokesperson Ewan Watson said. "We are hopeful it (the safe passage operation) will commence today."

However, the body did not receive permission to take humanitarian aid with the convoy, and it departed without any supplies, he added.

A March 29 Russian artillery strike that hit the Mykolaiv Regional State Administration building was now determined to have resulted in at least 24 deaths, Interfax reported, citing Ukraine's emergency services. Twenty-three victims were found dead by rescuers while one person died in the hospital.

Mykolaiv Oblast Governor Vitaliy Kim's office was destroyed in the strike, which took place before 9 a.m. local time, but he was not there at the time. According to the Mirror citing Ukraine's Strategic Communications and Information Team, this was because Kim had overslept.

Evacuation efforts are ongoing. According to a Friday statement by Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast governor, five humanitarian corridors have been arranged.

Russian troop redeployments

An earlier intelligence report stated that Russian troops stationed in Georgia are being redeployed to shore up the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow continues to call a "special military operation."

The Russian army is one of the largest in the world, with well over a million troops and conscripts. Further, in the leadup to the invasion, Moscow had stationed over 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border. 

The invasion has since slowed heavily and made minimal progress despite the large number of amassed troops at its disposal. 

According to UK intelligence, it is highly unlikely that Russia planned to generate reinforcements by redeploying from Georgia to the south of Ukraine, which is evidence of the unexpectedly severe losses the Russian army has suffered.

This follows reports that Russia was deploying Wagner Group mercenaries to the battlefield, shifting priority away from operations in Africa and Syria.

Russia has also received at least 300 mercenaries from Syria to train and aid in the conflict in Ukraine, with hundreds if not thousands more expected to follow, The New York Times reported.

These Syrian forces had fought for a Syrian army unit allied with Russian-backed President Bashar Assad and fought in the Syrian Civil War. 

At least $10 billon in damage to infrastructure

Russia's bombardment of Ukraine's southern port city of Mariupol has caused at least $10 billion in damage to infrastructure, according to a preliminary estimate by local authorities.

"Every crime, every murder and act of destruction committed by the aggressor must be recorded and passed on to the International Court (of Justice)," the city council quoted Mayor Vadym Boichenko as saying.

It said a special committee of councilors would be responsible for recording such acts.

Death toll rises to 31 from strike on government building in Ukraine's Mykolaiv

At least 31 people have been confirmed killed as a result of Tuesday's rocket strike on the regional administration building in Ukraine's southern city of Mykolaiv, local emergency services said in an online post on Friday.

Round-the-clock rescue operations were still taking place, the post said.

Rescue workers had to pull victims from the rubble after Tuesday's attack blasted a hole through the side of the building in central Mykolaiv.