Ukrainian soldiers raced into Kherson in southern Ukraine on Friday after Moscow said the Russian retreat from the city was complete.
In a humiliating setback to Vladimir Putin, his forces appeared to have withdrawn completely from the only provincial capital seized by his army in eight months of war.
Video circulating on social media showed people celebrating with Ukrainian flags in a square in the city. A clip showed crowds embracing arriving Ukrainian soldiers.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky declared it as a “historic day” in an address to the nation, as crowds celebrated in central Kyiv.
“The people of Kherson were waiting. They never gave up on Ukraine. Hope for Ukraine is always justified - and Ukraine always regains its own,” he said.
Zelensky on the day Ukrainian troops entered liberated Kherson:
“Today is a historic day… The people of Kherson were waiting. They never gave up on Ukraine. Hope for Ukraine is always justified - and Ukraine always regains its own.” pic.twitter.com/vCTi9e89kn
— Matthew Luxmoore (@mjluxmoore) November 11, 2022
Mr Zelensky shared nighttime video of celebrations in Kherson city with people waving flags, and a crowd chants “ZSU,” the Ukrainian acronym for the armed forces.
Posting the video to his official Telegram account, Zelensky added: “Ours. Kherson is ours.”
An evening update from the Ukrainian military said troops had pushed as far forwards as the western bank of the Dnipro river.
“Ukrainian Army is already in Kherson! Slava Ukraine!” tweeted Ukranian Oleksiy Goncharenko MP around midday on Friday after the first troops arrived in the city.
First Ukrainian soldiers at the main town square in Kherson city pic.twitter.com/IrEUbBL8VA
— marqs (@MarQs__) November 11, 2022
A Ukrainian flag flew over a monument in a central Kherson square for the first time since the city was seized in early March.
But Ukrainian officials resisted claiming the city was yet fully in Ukrainian hands.
Mr Zelensky said on Friday evening that “special units” were already in the city and other troops were arriving. He said Russian forces had placed mines in the city and that after troops entered, they will be followed by sappers, rescue workers and energy personnel.
Ukrainian soldiers were said to have entered the Shumensky district in the west of the city.
The arrival of Kyiv’s troops in the key city was confirmed by Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency, which said Kherson was coming back under Ukrainian control after being occupied by Russian forces since March. It also threatened to “destroy” any Russian soldiers who resisted.
“You have only one chance to avoid death - immediately surrender,” the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Defence Ministry said in the statement on the Telegram messaging app.
It came shortly after Russian defence chiefs claimed they had completed a retreat from Kherson in a humilating setback for Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
The Ministry of Defence in Moscow said Russian troops had withdrawn from the west bank of the Dnipro River, the TASS news agency reported.
— Liveuamap (@Liveuamap) November 11, 2022
In its daily briefing cited by Russian news agencies, the ministry said the withdrawal was completed by 5am Moscow time (2am GMT) on Friday morning.
A senior Ukrainian official said its armed forces were in the final stage of reclaiming the west bank of the Dnipro River. It later said troops had reached the river.
Serhiy Khlan, a deputy for Kherson Regional Council, also told a briefing many Russian soldiers had been unable to leave the city of Kherson after months of occupation, and had changed into civilian clothing.
Russia ordered the withdrawal on Wednesday after it said it attempts to maintain its position and supply troops were "futile" in the face of a mounting Ukrainian counter-offensive.
All of right-bank Kherson has been retaken over night by the Ukrainian Army and Ukrainian soldiers are currently entering the western part of the city of Kherson itself.
— Visegrád 24 (@visegrad24) November 11, 2022
Earlier on Friday, Mr Putin’s fleeing troops were reported to have blown up a key bridge over the Dnipro River to stop Ukrainian forces pursuing them as they retreated.
Ukrainian military chiefs were also said to have targeted artillery barrages on Russian units as they headed to get across the river to its east bank.
Some reports claimed Russian units suffered heavy casualties as they withdrew.
Video footage showed a section of the Antonovsky Bridge destroyed, while another one suggested Russian troops had been retreating along a makeshift bridge close to it.
Video footage of the now destroyed Antonovsky Bridge, from the perspective of the east bank of the Dnipro. pic.twitter.com/CoOJSDyoON
— Jimmy Rushton (@JimmySecUK) November 11, 2022
Ukraine’s public broadcaster quoted local residents as saying early on Friday that the Antonovsky Bridge had collapsed.
The Suspilne broadcaster published a photograph showing whole sections of the road bridge missing.
The next road crossing across the Dnipro is more than 70 km (43 miles) from Kherson city.
Ukrainian troops reclaimed dozens of landmine-littered settlements abandoned by Russian forces in the south of the country on Thursday, officials said, the day after Moscow announced its withdrawal from the strategic capital city of Kherson province.
There were indications on Thursday night that Ukrainian forces were getting closer to the city of Kherson, a port at the mouth of the Dnipro River, said Ukrainian military analyst Yuri Butusov.
The closest Ukrainian reconnaissance patrols were less than 18 km (11 miles) from the city, he said on the Telegram messaging app.
Antonovsky bridge in Kherson was blown up by retreating Russian forces last night pic.twitter.com/dHwZbSdIux
— marqs (@MarQs__) November 11, 2022
“Ukrainian forces are trying to break into Kherson on the shoulders of the retreating enemy,” he added.
“In the area of the river crossings, where Russian troops are concentrated, firefights are breaking out.”
It would take a minimum of one week for Russia to pull out of Kherson city in an orderly way, said Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov.
But if Mr Putin’s withdrawal turns into a rout it could happen far quicker.
Russia still had 40,000 troops in the region and intelligence showed its forces remained in and around the city, Mr Reznikov added.
Russia announced on Wednesday it would withdraw from the west bank of the Dnipro that includes Kherson, the only regional capital Moscow has captured since invading Ukraine in February.
A withdrawal would be the third time the smaller Ukrainian military has pushed back the Russians, who were thwarted in the north in March from taking the capital Kyiv. Then in September, Ukrainian troops ousted Russian occupying forces from parts of the northeastern region of Kharkiv.
But as it was retreating in the south of the country, Russia’s army was still hitting civilian areas.
Six people were killed in a Russian missile attack on an apartment building in the city of Mykolaiv early on Friday, said Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych.
Rescuers were digging through the debris for survivors, he wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
Three impacts were heard early in the morning in the area, the first at around 3am.
Photographs posted by Mr Senkevych showed a gaping hole in the multi-storey building and emergency workers combing through a mound of rubble.
In London, the Ministry of Defence highlighted the wave of missile attacks unleashed by Mr Putin on Ukraine’s electricity infrastucture.
In its latest intelligence briefing, it said: “Continued degradation of networks by Russian strikes will almost certainly have consequences for interlinked water and heating systems, that will be most significantly felt by the civilian population during winter, as demand increases.”
It added: “Russian strikes on power generation and transmission are having a disproportionate effect upon civilians in Ukraine, indiscriminately impacting critical functions such as healthcare and heating.”
Kherson province is one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed in late September and that most countries condemned as illegal.
US President Joe Biden welcomed news of the Russian withdrawal on Wednesday, but on Thursday played down any suggestion of a near-term resolution to the war.
“I don’t think the conflict will be resolved... until Putin gets out of Ukraine,” Mr Biden told reporters at the White House.
Ukraine general staff said offensive actions in the direction of Kherson continued, but withheld details.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday night that Ukrainian forces had liberated 41 settlements as they advanced through the south.
Sappers and pyrotechnicians were going into areas retaken from Russian forces to rid them of thousands of unexploded landmines and ordnance they left behind, he added.
About 170,000 square kilometres (66,000 square miles) remained to be de-mined, Mr Zelensky said, including in places where there was still fighting and “where the enemy will add landmines before its withdrawal, as is the case now with Kherson.”
The region’s Ukrainian-appointed governor, Yaroslav Yanushevych, said on Telegram that Russian troops had “taken away public equipment, damaged power lines and wanted to leave a trap behind them”.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr Zelensky, said Russia wanted to turn Kherson into a “city of death”, mining everything from apartments to sewers and planning to shell the city from the other side of the river.
Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians, though the conflict has killed thousands, displaced millions and pulverised Ukrainian towns and cities.
“There are absolutely no signs that a trap is being laid in Kherson,” Volodymyr Molchanov, a commentator from Kherson, was quoted as saying on the Ukrainian national Espreso TV website.
“Russian troops started moving out yesterday (Wednesday) ... in trying to cross the Dnipro, the enemy is sustaining huge casualties.”
A pullout in Kherson would free up forces from both sides to fight elsewhere, military analysts said, and there was no sign Moscow was finished with what it calls “a special military operation” against its pro-Western neighbour.
“It’s definitely a turning point, but it doesn’t mean that Russia has lost or that Ukraine has won,” said Ben Barry, a senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Russia was still capable of a new offensive or counterattacks, he said. “It is far too soon to write them off.”
A small group of Ukrainian soldiers was shown on Ukraine’s state TV being greeted by joyous residents in the centre of the village of Snihurivka, around 55 km (35 miles) north of Kherson city, with a Ukrainian flag fluttering above the square behind them.
The success of Ukraine’s counter-offensives will bolster Kyiv’s argument to the West to continue supplying modern weapons to force back Russia’s army.
Some figures in Washington were reported to be pushing for the US to urge Mr Zelensky to strike a deal to end the war, given the growing strength of Ukraine’s position.
However, Britain has insisted that any peace deal decision had to be down to Kyiv.