Putin backs civilians leaving Kherson area

Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly endorsed the evacuation of parts of Ukraine's southern Kherson region in the latest sign of Russia's retreat from one of the most hotly contested areas in Ukraine.

"Now, of course, those who live in Kherson should be removed from the zone of the most dangerous actions because the civilian population should not suffer," Putin told pro-Kremlin activists as he marked Russia's Day of National Unity.

Russia has already been ferrying people out of an area it controls in Kherson on the west bank of the Dinpro River and this week announced that the evacuation zone would also include a 15km buffer area on the east bank.

Russia says it has been taking residents to safety from the path of a Ukrainian advance.

Putin's comments came amid signs Russia could be preparing to abandon its military foothold on the west bank of the Dnipro River, including Kherson's regional capital - potentially one of the biggest Russian retreats of the war.

On Thursday, Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-installed occupation administration in Kherson, said Russia was likely to pull its troops from the west bank. In later remarks, he was more equivocal, saying he hoped there would be no retreat but "we have to take some very difficult decisions".

Late on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the fiercest fighting in the past week had taken place around Bakhmut and Soledar, in the eastern Donetsk region about 500km northeast of Kherson.

"We are holding our positions in these and a few other areas in the Donetsk region," he said in a video address, accusing Russia of insane stubbornness for sending "tens or hundreds of thousands more people to the meat grinder".

During the day Ukrainian forces had downed eight Iranian drones and two Russian missiles, Zelenskiy said.

Pictures have circulated on the internet showing the main administration building in Kherson city with Russia's flag no longer flying atop it. Kyiv has been wary, saying such signs could be Russian deception to lure Ukrainian troops into a trap.

A 24-hour curfew was imposed on the city on Friday, Stremousov said, adding the measure was necessary to defend Kherson from a likely Ukrainian offensive.

Ukrainian soldiers in a mechanised infantry company dug in on a tree line west of Kherson city were confident the Russians would eventually retreat, but would fight as they fall back.

The regional capital, on the west bank at the mouth of the Dnipro, is the only big city Russia has captured intact since its invasion in February. Its loss for Russian forces would be one of the severest blows of the war.