THE Sun joined Ukraine’s special forces hunting Russian stragglers in liberated Kherson — as rockets and mortars pounded the city.
Police commandos scoured the docks for sleeper cells and booby-traps while residents got back to their lives after nine months of enemy occupation.
But behind the celebration runs an undercurrent of fear as neighbour turns on neighbour, accusing each other of collaboration.
The city has no power or running water and thousands are braving rain and freezing temperatures to queue for food hand-outs, as most of the shops are shuttered.
Valentyn Ilchuk, 39, part of the police team searching for stragglers, said there are fears Russian Spetznaz special forces may be loitering in civilian clothes and spies may be reporting on the influx of Ukrainian troops.
Residents on the edge of the Dnipro river — which marks the edge of Ukrainian control — said Russian troops had used small boats to navigate a web of channels in the estuary giving access to the city.
Ilchuk’s seven-strong team searched a series of nuclear bunkers under the Kherson state ship building factory.
He said: “We are looking for stray Russians that haven’t made it out.
“We are making sure nothing is mined. We are making sure everything is safe.”
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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed triumphant decrees absorbing Kherson into Russia — and billboards around the city still proclaim: “Russia is here forever.”
But Moscow’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered a humiliating retreat after his commanders confessed they could no longer face Ukraine’s artillery and keep their troops supplied.
They abandoned the city and hundreds of surrounding villages in the only swathe of Russian held territory on the west bank.
Blasts and thumps of nearby artillery echoed over the city as soldiers scrambled a drone to look for a Russian mortar team on the east of the river.
But low mist and rain made their mission impossible.
Hours later, a volley of Russian rockets slammed into the dockyard, setting a building ablaze.
Sasha, a security guard, said mortars and rockets hit every day.
Ilchuk, who studied business in England’s Warwick University before signing up to fight for his homeland, said rumours of Russian spies were rife, but only a handful have been found.
He said: “Yesterday we had intelligence that there were two Russians in a village, but villages are complicated. There are a lot of local tensions and one half blames the other half for collaborating.”
Those fears were fuelled by the way Kherson fell on Feb 24, the first day of Putin’s invasion.
Russian troops who burst out of Crimea appeared to have maps to navigate defensive minefields.
And the key Antonovsky Bridge, which links Kherson city to the east bank, was never destroyed by the city’s defenders to halt the advance.
A policeman who gave his call-sign as Rose, said: “They had inside information and maps. There was no way to de-mine as fast as they advanced.”
Last week, the Russian invaders left almost as quickly as they arrived.
But unlike earlier retreats, when troops fled in disarray leaving tanks and trucks and comrades’ bodies, the withdrawal from Kherson was orderly and well planned.
On the metal door of a nuclear bunker, a handwritten note warned the Ukrainian cops: “Russians stayed here. They were all over the plant and left 6/7 November. Be careful.”
We watched as the police paramilitaries tied a rope to the door handle and heaved it open from 20 yards away in case it was booby-trapped.
Russian soldiers have previously wired grenades and anti-tank mines to some doors and dead bodies, but on this occasion Ukrainian caution was unnecessary.
Inside the gloom of the bunker, they found rows of metal shelves stacked floor to ceiling with supplies for a nuclear, chemical or biological attack.
It was a standard Soviet-era civil emergency bunker.
But there was no sign of the graffiti, abandoned rations or discarded uniforms that would suggest a recent Russian base.
At a second bunker on the site, the only sign of the Russian troops was a makeshift barricade made from empty Grad rocket boxes.
The Ukrainian soldiers searched inside with torches attached to their assault rifles.
The bunks and desks were empty.
There was a microwave under a bed.
“They forgot to steal it,” joked Sergei, a policeman with a Darth Vader tattoo on his hand.
On a patch of scrubland outside, two shapes on the ground looked like bloated bodies.
On closer inspection, we saw they were just dummies made from stuffed Russian combat jackets impaled on sticks like scarecrows.
They had fallen from the seats of a nearby Zenit anti-aircraft gun, half concealed in a bush.
Ilchuk explained: “The Russians were leaving manikins to pretend to be in positions.
“These two gentlemen were sitting over there in the chair of an old school anti-aircraft gun.
They were the only Russians they found.
Squad commander Tor said they had captured a suspected Russian spy on their first day in Kherson, based on a tip-off from neighbours.
They also seized $10,000 (£8,420) and 300,000 Russian roubles (£4,180) when they raided his house.
Ukrainian officials said on Thursday they had found 63 bodies in Kherson with suspected Russian torture marks, after police stations were turned into makeshift “torture chambers” by Putin’s forces.
Officials also claim to have found 11 illegal prisons in the city, while more than 700 Ukrainian residents are still classified as missing.
Former prison inmates say they were forced to learn the Russian national anthem.
They were also told to admit to being anti-Putin “collaborators” in humiliating confessions on Russian state TV.
Defying Putin ‘go now’ text menace
MORE than half of Kherson’s 300,000 residents have fled since the invasion — but many stayed despite Russian texts pressing them to quit the city.
Around 20,000 obeyed Kremlin troops’ instructions to leave on boats across the Dnipro River.
Among those who were liberated are nurse Natalia, 41, and her son Pavel, 16, both pictured below.
Natalia told us yesterday: “You’d have had to put a gun to my head to make me leave my city.
“There was no way the Russians were driving me from my home.”
She said the Russians sent her texts and automated calls urging them to flee, but they refused.
Natalia added: “At first the messages were very gentle, saying please pack your things and go away. By the end it was threatening.”
The city lost power and water two weeks ago and many now gather in city squares to use emergency wifi terminals shipped in by the Ukrainian government.
Pavel dropped out of college when the Russians took it over but managed to learn online.
The brave teenager vowed: “I want to live here. I will always live here.”
Natalia worked throughout the occupation and received her government salary.
But she was unable draw it because all banks were closed and Russia demanded shops only take roubles.
Her only way to get cash was via a black market network of currency sharks who charged ten per cent per transaction.
“I hope things will get better now,” she said.