President Volodymyr Zelensky has made his first trip to Ukraine’s war-torn southern frontline, as his forces mount a slow-moving advance in the region.
Visiting the hold-out city of Mykolaiv, he inspected damaged buildings and met soldiers, officials and health workers.
The Ukrainian leader also visited the western city of Odesa, which has been subjected to periodic Russian shelling since the war began.
Both cities are targets in Russia’s efforts to seize the Black Sea coast.
Mr Zelensky has regularly met with international leaders in Kyiv since Moscow pulled its forces away from the capital city, having decided to refocus its efforts on capturing the eastern Donbas region.
But he has also defied Russian troops by going to areas where fighting has been raging, and in recent weeks has visited other front-line cities, including Kharkiv in the east.
“It is important that you are alive. As long as you live there is a strong Ukrainian wall that protects our country,” the Ukrainian leader told troops in Odesa.
“I want to thank you from the people of Ukraine, from our state for the great work you are doing, for your impeccable service.”
In Mykolaiv, Mr Zelensky handed out medals to soldiers and urged them to “take care of Ukraine – the only thing we have. And take care of yourself – only you can do it”.
The city has long been a key target for Russian forces and has been subject to heavy rocket and artillery bombardments.
It also lies just 100km (62 miles) northwest of Kherson, a city occupied by Russia since the opening days of the war – but which is now subject to a slow-moving but determined Ukrainian advance.
SOURCE: NEWS AGENCIES