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CNN team visits key city of Lyman, hours after Ukraine regains control from Russian forces

Matt Kieffer / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Nick Paton Walsh and Victoria Butenko, CNN

(CNN) - The ghostly emptiness of the streets of Lyman in eastern Ukraine belies this city's strategic significance.

There are no signs of Russian troops at all on Sunday -- few damaged Russian tanks, or Russian dead, or Russian prisoners. Members of the Ukrainian National Guard from the Dnipro-1 unit hover in small numbers on some streets.

The occasional rattle of gunfire, or thud of artillery, pierces the silence. A few locals emerge, riding bicycles, searching for food, bewildered about what is happening.

"One day I wear one cap, another day a different cap," said one woman in tears, pretending to take off a hat.

"How can we live like this," she said, referring to the changing control of the town.

CNN was among the first media outlets into the recently liberated city, arriving 30 minutes after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared the town completely cleared of Russians troops.

Ukrainian officials and troops had spoken repeatedly of large numbers of Moscow's better units being trapped there. Yet on Sunday there were few signs of encirclement to be seen.

Some officials said Russian corpses had already been cleared away and prisoners removed. But locals offered another explanation: that Russian forces had left the city on Friday in an orderly fashion.

"They got on their tanks, and drove out," said Tanya, riding her bicycle back to the bomb shelter, where she still spends the nights with 15 others.

A Ukrainian army spokesman, asked to respond to CNN's reporting, denied there had been a Russian withdrawal two days ago, saying there had been fighting in the area as recently as Saturday.

Sergiy Cherevatiy, of the Eastern Group of Armed Forces of Ukraine, said Russian troops had formed convoys to break through the de facto encirclement of the city. Some succeeded in getting out, he said, while others had been hit.

The possibility Russian forces may have conducted, even in part, an orderly withdrawal on Friday raises an important question of timing for the Kremlin. During that day, Russian President Vladimir Putin was signing documents falsely claiming to annex Lyman, and other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, and holding a rally in Moscow's Red Square claiming victory would be Russia's.

At the same time, it now appears his military were pulling out of Lyman, in one of the most significant Russian defeats for weeks -- a withdrawal that may have a knock-on effect for Russian control of occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The switch back to Ukrainian control in Lyman was swift, with one local already painting the Ukrainian gold and blue colors back on the gate of the local police station. Inside the building, the damage had already been swept away and rooms tidied.

In the local administration building, Roman sat on a table near a flag of the "United Russia" party. "Bad," he said, describing the months of Russian control. "No electricity or water." He added that the administration building was used to manage and corral locals into participating in the recent referendum, which in Lyman must have occurred under the full barrage of Ukraine's advance.

Lyman's significant railway infrastructure has been heavily damaged, the roofs blown off the station building and rolling stock on the railways damaged. Multiple buildings in the town have been heavily destroyed, yet on Sunday the streets seemed in some areas to have been already swept clean.

Many of the Ukrainian troops had already moved on towards the next target in Russia's rapidly faltering lines of defense -- Kremmina, further to the east.

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