- Most intense fighting shelling since 2015 ceasefire, says source
- Moscow calls situation dangerous
- West says it fears Russia is preparing pretext to invade
- Putin meeting Belarus leader to discuss future of troops
MOSCOW/KYIV, Feb 18 (Reuters) – Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine said on Friday they planned to evacuate their breakaway region’s residents to Russia, a shock turn in a conflict the West believes Moscow plans to use to justify an all-out invasion of its neighbour.
Announcing the move on social media, Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said Russia had agreed to provide accommodation for those who leave. Women, children and the elderly should be evacuated first. The other self-proclaimed region, Luhansk, made a similar announcement.
Millions of civilians are believed to live in the two rebel-held regions of eastern Ukraine; most are Russian speakers and many have already been granted Russian citizenship.
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The eastern Ukraine conflict zone saw the most intense artillery bombardment for years on Friday, with the Kyiv government and the separatists trading blame. Western countries have said they think the shelling, which began on Thursday and intensified in its second day, is part of a pretext to invade.
Washington said Russia – which says it started drawing down troops near Ukraine this week – had instead done the opposite: ramping up the force menacing its neighbour to between 169,000 and 190,000 troops, from 100,000 at the end of January.
“This is the most significant military mobilisation in Europe since the Second World War,” U.S. ambassador Michael Carpenter told a meeting at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
‘THEY ARE SHOOTING – EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING’
The events transpiring in the border area over the past two days are part of a Russian scenario to create false provocations, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Rather than pull troops back, “on the contrary, we see additional forces going to the border including leading edge forces that would be part of any aggression,” Blinken said at the Munich Security Conference alongside German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
A diplomatic source with years of direct experience of the conflict described the shelling in eastern Ukraine as the most intense since major combat there ended with a 2015 ceasefire.
Close to 600 explosions were recorded on Friday morning, 100 more than on Thursday, some involving 152 mm and 122 mm artillery and large mortars, the source said. At least four rounds had been fired from tanks.
“They are shooting – everyone and everything,” said the source. “There’s been nothing like this since 2014-15.”
Other officials have been more cautious, noting that there have been periods of deadly fighting during the ceasefire.
Shortly after the evacuation announcement in Donetsk on Friday, a Reuters witness said a loud warning siren sounded in the city centre.
People will start being bussed out of the Donetsk region at 8 pm (1700 GMT) on Friday, Russia’s Interfax news agency cited a source saying.
Militants of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic walk in a trench at combat positions near the line of separation from the Ukrainian armed forces outside the settlement of Molodizhne (Molodezhnoye) in the Luhansk region, Ukraine February 17, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
Asked about the moves, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had no information about the situation and did not know if they were being coordinated with Russia, Interfax also reported.
The announcement piled further pressure on Russia’s rouble currency and other assets as jittery investors closely monitored the diplomatic and military developments.
The West has threatened tighter economic sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine, but Moscow, already under sanctions since 2014, has brushed this off.
President Vladimir Putin told a news conference in Moscow that Western countries would probably find a reason to impose sanctions whatever Russia does.
Russia denies Western accusations it is planning an all-out invasion of Ukraine, a country of over 40 million people.
Moscow also said it was closely watching the escalation of shelling in eastern Ukraine, where government troops have faced the rebels since 2014. It described the situation as potentially very dangerous.
BIDEN RALLIES ALLIES
In the most detailed U.S. warning yet of the likelihood of war, Blinken told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that Washington believed Russia was planning an all-out assault.
Blinken said this could begin with a manufactured pretext, possibly involving a faked attack and false accusations about the separatist conflict, Blinken said.
U.S. President Joe Biden, rallying allies to maintain a unified stance, was due to host a call on Friday with leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania, plus the European Union and NATO.
But Russia has also forcefully pressed a set of security demands, including a promise Ukraine never be admitted into NATO, which the West calls a non-starter. On Thursday Russia delivered a strongly-worded letter to the United States threatening unspecified “military-technical measures”.
Russia announced Putin would personally supervise exercises of its strategic nuclear missile forces on Saturday, though it said these drills were no cause for alarm.
Among ambiguities surrounding the Kremlin’s intentions are plans for tens of thousands of troops staging exercises in Belarus, north of Ukraine, due to end on Sunday. Moscow has said they would go back to Russia at some point following the drills, but has not said when.
The Russian-backed leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, met Putin on Friday to discuss the troop presence with Putin. Before the meeting Lukashenko suggested the Russians could stay.
“The armed forces will stay as long as needed,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying by the state BelTa news agency.
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Reporting by Reuters bureaux Writing by Peter Graff Editing by Gareth Jones
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