KHERSON, Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a surprise visit Monday to the key southern city of Kherson to celebrate its liberation from eight months of Russian occupation.

The crowd in Kherson cheered as Zelenskyy told them, "We are, step by step, coming to all of our country."

Zelenskyy has visited frontline areas throughout the war, but usually in secret trips announced only after he had come and gone.

This time he appeared openly in front of the city's main government building, in a military-style jacket and clothing, surrounded by heavily armed security. He spoke and waved to residents as Ukraine marks one of its biggest victories of the war.

As the blue-and-gold Ukrainian flag fluttered on a breezy day, Zelenskyy, his entourage, and hundreds of Kherson residents stood at attention as Ukraine's national anthem played.

Russian troops nearby

Despite the upbeat mood in the city, Russian troops are only a short distance away, having retreated from Kherson on the west bank of the Dnipro River to the east side. The two armies remain within artillery range of each other.

In his televised address on Sunday night, Zelenskyy said Ukrainian investigators have already documented more than 400 cases of suspected war crimes by the Russian forces during their occupation of Kherson.

"The Russian army left behind the same atrocities as in other regions of our country," he said.

The Russians have previously denied committing abuses.

But Ukraine says it's documented thousands of cases nationwide, and a United Nations report in September found evidence the Russians killed, tortured and raped Ukrainian civilians.

Because the Russians took Kherson without a fight at the beginning of the war, most of the city's buildings remain intact, unlike other urban areas that have been reduced to ruins.

However, the Russians destroyed Kherson's energy and waters systems before pulling out last week.

The city is lacking electricity and heat, and is also in dire need of food, water and medicine. Ukrainian military and government officials are trying to restore a sense of normality in a city that had close to 300,000 residents before the war.

Officials estimate only about a quarter of the residents were still in Kherson by the final days of the Russian occupation.

In contrast to Zelenskyy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not spoken publicly about Kherson since the Russia troops abandoned the city without a fight.

Putin annexed Kherson and several other Ukrainian regions in September, declaring they were permanently part of Russia.

Asked about the latest developments in Kherson, Putin's spokesman Dmitri Peskov said, "We'll refrain from commenting. You know this territory belongs to the Russian Federation."

NPR Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes contributed to this report.

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