Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited newly liberated Izium in the northeastern Kharkiv region on Wednesday, five days after the city was recaptured by the country’s armed forces.
Photos on an army unit’s Facebook page showed Zelenskyy at a ceremony in the main square to raise the Ukrainian flag over the city’s administrative building. Hanna Maliar, Deputy Secretary of Defense, was also present.
“Before, when we looked up, we were always looking for the blue sky. Today, when we look up, we are looking for only one thing – the flag of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in a post on the President’s Telegram channel.
“Our blue and yellow flag is already flying in unoccupied Izium. And it will be so in every Ukrainian city and village. We are only moving in one direction – forward and towards victory.”
“I want to thank you for saving our people, our hearts, children and our future,” Zelenskyy said, according to a statement published on the president’s website.
“It has been extremely difficult for you in the last few months. So I ask you to take care of yourself because you are the most valuable asset we have,” he said.
“It may be possible to temporarily occupy the territories of our state. But it is definitely impossible to occupy our people, the Ukrainian people,” he said.
A minute’s silence was observed at the ceremony to commemorate those lost in military operations.
Ukrainian forces regained control of Izium on Saturday, marking a major strategic blow to Russia’s military offensive in the east.
Izium, located near the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, was under Russian occupation for over five months and became a key hub for the invading military.
Moscow used Izium as a launch pad for attacks south into the Donetsk region and Kupyansk region, some 30 miles north of Izium, as a railroad junction to resupply its forces.
Russia’s collapse in north-eastern Ukraine sparked anger from Putin supporters, who condemned the Kremlin’s abandonment of Kharkiv in a rare display of harsh criticism.
CNN’s Ivana Kottasová, Tim Lister, Yulia Kesaieva, Denis Lapin, Josh Pennington and Victoria Butenko contributed coverage.