Pro-Russian separatists urge civilians to flee Ukraine for Russia

Moscow/Kyiv — Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have urged civilians to cross the border into Russia to protect themselves from an attack by Ukrainian government forces, while the Russian president says those refugees should receive compensation.

The call for an exodus to Russia came as rebels and Kyiv authorities blamed each other for escalating violence along a ceasefire line, while Western powers reiterated fears that an invasion by Russian forces is imminent.

“Women, children and the elderly” must be brought to safety first, Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a video message. The Donetsk region alone planned to evacuate 700,000 people, according to later reports.

Pushilin said he was making an “urgent demand” for residents to make a “massive and centralized departure”, citing the threat of imminent military action by Ukrainian troops.

Shortly after, the car of a senior official exploded outside the government building in Donetsk, local media reported. No one was injured and it is unclear what caused the explosion.

Separatists in Luhansk, the other rebel stronghold in Ukraine, also ordered similar measures.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said refugees fleeing a suspected attack in eastern Ukraine should receive cash payments of 10,000 rubles (about $130).

Meanwhile, Kiev reiterated its denials of any plans to attack the separatists.

Ukraine has no intention of launching an attack on separatist-held areas in the east as it would cause ‘countless casualties’, the country’s top military commander says, urging everyone involved to ignore the “lies” about the situation.

“An attack on Donbass would irreversibly lead to countless casualties among the civilian population, which is why such scenarios are not considered at all,” Valerii Zaluzhnyi said, saying Kyiv is seeking a peaceful solution to the problem.

“Do not believe the lies of the occupiers,” he said, addressing directly the inhabitants of the affected areas.

Other countries, meanwhile, again said it was Moscow that was jeopardizing the region’s security.

The US envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said Ukraine is threatened by 169,000 to 190,000 troops and security forces under Russian control.

The US estimate includes troops in the Russian border region, Belarus and Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia, Ambassador Michael Carpenter told the OSCE in Vienna.

Adding to the alarm are new allegations of shelling in the past 24 hours in Ukraine’s Donbass, home to the rebel-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Separatists said government forces intensified shelling overnight and two transformer stations were damaged.

The Ukrainian army said Friday morning that there had been nearly twenty violations by the rebels of the ceasefire agreed in 2015 under Franco-German mediation. Claims may not be independently verified.

Moscow is ‘very concerned’ about increased shelling in eastern Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said, alleging Ukrainian troops were using weapons banned under the 2015 peace plan .

On Thursday, a kindergarten in government-controlled territory was directly hit by separatist shelling, according to Kiev.

Western powers have warned for weeks that the region could be on the brink of war, and the incident at the kindergarten has raised fears that the situation could escalate quickly and dramatically.

The strike on the school was interpreted by some leaders, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as a strategic provocation to provoke a counterattack from Kiev that would provide Russia with a pretext to launch an invasion.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron were among leaders Friday calling for dialogue and the laying down of arms.

Russia has repeatedly denied intending to attack its neighbour. The government condemns US, NATO and European assessments of the situation as distorted and an attempt to stoke anti-Russian “hysteria”.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin would oversee military drills involving the launch of ballistic and cruise missiles on Saturday.

He also plans to join a maneuver to check Russia’s nuclear arsenal, according to a statement. Longer-range missiles are to be tested in Saturday’s long-planned exercise.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko is also taking part, as the two nations stage a large-scale maneuver in southern Belarus on the border with Ukraine.

Lukashenko and Putin also discussed expanding their cooperation and condemned Western sanctions affecting their two countries.

Putin again called the sanctions “illegal”, but said more were likely to come.

Elsewhere, efforts to defuse the situation continued. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his American counterpart Lloyd Austin spoke by telephone on Friday.

Austin called for “de-escalation, the return of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine to their home bases, and a diplomatic resolution,” a Pentagon spokesman said.

The US Defense Secretary was in Poland on Friday, where he warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could trigger an influx of “tens of thousands” of people trying to flee to safety in the European Union.

Washington also said Ukraine could expect further cyberattacks if Russia were to invade the country.

Moscow is responsible for recent cyberattacks on several Ukrainian websites, the US government said, referring to sites of the Defense Ministry and several state-owned banks earlier this week.

“We believe the Russian government is responsible for the large-scale cyberattacks against Ukrainian banks this week,” Anne Neuberger, US deputy national security adviser for cybersecurity and emerging technologies, said at the White House.

©2022 dpa GmbH. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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