'Caught them by surprise': Ukraine troops take Kharkiv village
A Ukranian serviceman walks in the village of Mala Rogan, east of Kharkiv, after Ukrainian troops retook the village Aris Messinis AFP

On the map it may be just a tiny hamlet of a few kilometers and souls. But for Ukrainian soldiers, it was nevertheless more than a tiny victory.

On Monday they finished clearing Russian troops from the village on the outskirts of Ukraine's second-largest city Kharkiv, as Kyiv's forces mount counterattacks against a stalling Russian invasion.

Ukrainian soldiers, blue electrical tape wound around the arms of their fatigues, were securing destroyed homes in the settlement of Mala Rogan, about five kilometers (three miles) from Kharkiv.

AFP journalists saw what appeared to be the bodies of two Russian soldiers in the streets of the village, which was largely destroyed by the fighting.

The remains of two other soldiers had been thrown into a nearby well, their boots sticking out from under a block of concrete.

"That risks contaminating the water," a Ukrainian soldier told AFP.

"There are Russian corpses all over the place," he said, adding that more than two dozen soldiers dispatched to Ukraine by Moscow had been killed in the fight for the hamlet.

AFP journalists also observed remnants of several Russian armored vehicles abandoned in the yards of homes in the village.

Ten-hour battle

Ukraine launched its attack on the Russian-controlled village last week, but it took several days to root out Moscow's troops hiding in cellars and nearby forests, the military said.

"We each carried 50 kilos of materials on our backs, we had Javelins," said Valery, a sergeant who took part in the operation, referring to the US anti-tank weapons.

The 54-year-old electrical engineer in the Kharkiv metro, a veteran of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, enlisted right after Russia invaded on February 24.

"I was expecting they'd hand me a shovel and an old gun, as in Afghanistan, but look," he said, spreading his arms to show his kit.

"The battle lasted around 10 hours. We caught the Russians by surprise. They were in the basements where they tried to hold out. We gave them a chance to surrender. Too bad for them...," said Valery, shrugging his shoulders.

Nearly 180 Russian soldiers were in the village altogether, he said.

"Five of them were captured, one of whom tried to escape and was also killed," said Valery. Another had served in the Russian contingent in Syria, he added.

"The Russians are sometimes in civilian clothing, they infiltrate our lines," he said.

"Russian snipers hidden in houses and nearby woods slowed down the liberation," of Mala Rogan, added Valery.

They also came under intense bombardment, including phosphorus shells twice.

"It was very beautiful all that fire in the night," another soldier said in jest.

Ukrainian counter-attacks

In Mala Rogan, the situation was relatively calm Monday, with the deep sounds of shelling off in the distance.

"Our troops are liberating Mala Rogan, and this is hugely important because Russian troops are constantly shelling residential areas of Kharkiv from there," the mayor of Ukraine's second-most populated city, Igor Terekhov said earlier.

Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to the head of the president's office, said Ukrainian forces were counter attacking against invading Russian troops in the northeast, referring to small, tactical offensives.

Moscow's month-long invasion on its neighbor has largely stalled, with no major recent advances and Ukrainian forces even able to counterattack in places.

Russian and Ukrainian troops meanwhile have been fighting for several days for control of the neighboring town of Vilkhivka, a few kilometers further north.

Ukrainian officials have also accused the Russian army of using Vilkhivka as a base to shell Kharkiv.

"Here we're advancing, but at Vilkhivka we're crawling," said another soldier.

"We need to finish this quickly, springtime is coming and soon it will be time to plant potatoes," said the farmer-soldier.

© 2022 AFP