Morning Chronicle - Russian soldiers drop from sky at edge of Kyiv

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Russian soldiers drop from sky at edge of Kyiv
Russian soldiers drop from sky at edge of Kyiv

Russian soldiers drop from sky at edge of Kyiv

The Russian forces came in shooting as they dropped from the open doors of helicopters to gain control of a strategic airport on the edge of Kyiv.

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Their advance was the closest Russian forces had managed to get to the capital on the first day of Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin's shock invasion of Ukraine.

They now represent an ominous presence at Kyiv's doorstep as Western-backed Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky tries to hold on to power in the face of the Russian onslaught.

Zelensky vowed that the Russian forces would be encircled and "destroyed".

But witnesses told AFP that the Russian paratroopers had managed to establish control of the airstrip after swooping in with helicopters and jets from the direction of Belarus.

"There were people sitting in the helicopters with their doors open, flying right over our houses," resident Sergiy Storozhuk said.

"The helicopters came in and then the battles started. They were firing machine guns, grenade launchers," he said.

"First the choppers were bombing, then maybe an hour ago, to Sukhoi jets flew by and dropped bombs."

- 'They were shooting at me' -

The Gostomel airfield could provide a strategic base for Russian forces to ferry in troops who could then launch an assault on government buildings and the presidential administration in the heart of Kyiv.

Black plumes of smoke loomed over the airstrip on Thursday afternoon.

The main road leading from the base to Kyiv was deserted and almost completely void of any Ukrainian military presence.

Long queues formed outside petrol stations. A few members of a civil defence protection unit walked down the side of the road with guns and shovels.

A tank flying a Ukrainian flag rolled past one of the main intersections and some soldiers manned a checkpoint leading into the city.

But witnesses said the airstrip itself had been filled by what one witness estimated were at least a few hundred Russian soldiers.

"They were shooting at me. I don't know, perhaps they were trying to scare me. Two helicopters were flying behind me and shooting at the side of the road," said taxi driver Mykola Shymko.

"Then I came back and see around 100 people. And I see that their uniforms are not ours."

Witnesses told AFP that the paratroopers wore white wristbands and orange-and-black ribbons -- the nationalist Russian colours of Saint George worn by some servicemen.

One witness said a three-hour battle ensued after the first offensive. Then more jets swooped in -- including Ukrainian ones.

The chaotic battle left many locals in tears.

- Shock and anguish -

Lyudmila Klimova wavered between shock and anguish while recalling how her little town on the edge of the airstrip had been teeming with life just a day ago.

"The base is smoking over there, it was bombed, our houses are nearby. We don't know where to run, my parents are here, my sister," she said as she walked away from the smouldering fields with a few lifelong friends.

"Russian troops are there, a friend of mine lives there, and the Russians have already approached his mother with a machine gun," the 58-year-old said.

Ukrainian border guards had earlier confirmed that Russian ground forces had also crossed south over the Belarus-Ukraine border into the Kyiv administrative region.

More battles were raging across Ukraine's eastern front with Russian-backed insurgents that first rebelled against Kyiv's rule in 2014.

But Klimova's thoughts mostly focused on her friends and the battles raging around her home.

"Our little town is there, smouldering," she said. "It was bombed. Our home is next to it.

"We do not know where to run."