Pro-Russia rebels ‘evacuate’ Ukrainians as Donetsk bombing fuels ‘false flag’ claims

‘We are hearing more heavy firing,’ says a local teacher. ‘People are very worried’

Kim Sengupta
in Kiev
Friday 18 February 2022 22:53
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Sirens sound in rebel-held capital in east Ukraine
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Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine announced a mass “evacuation” of civilians to Russia on Friday, shortly before a car bomb exploded – raising fears a critical moment has been reached in Kremlin “false flag operations” that could be used to justify military action.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) packed civilians on to buses as warning sirens blared.

Russian media claimed the explosion took place outside an official building in Donetsk. Pro-Russian separatist leader, Denis Pushilin, earlier said the local population was being taken to safety inside Russia because of shelling by Ukrainian forces.

Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of “systematic” human rights violations and insisted that large-scale military exercises with Belarusian forces close to the Ukrainian border were “purely defensive”.

It comes as Boris Johnson and other western leaders arrived in Munich to discuss the crisis at the city’s annual security conference.

Mr Johnson will tell fellow leaders that only an “overwhelming display of Western solidarity” can stop a Russian invasion and that Mr Putin must be confronted with allies who “speak with one voice.”

“There is still a chance to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but it will require an overwhelming display of western solidarity beyond anything we have seen in recent history,” he will say.

Senior City figures told The Independent they are braced for instructions to block transactions and freeze assets, under sanctions the UK will impose if the invasion goes ahead. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, has said they will target “any company of interest” to the Russian state, rather than simply stated-owned companies – but declined to say what the sanctions will be.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres told the summit on Friday that the threat to global security is “more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War.

Russian media said the Donetsk blast was caused by an explosive device in the car of the separatist republic’s police chief. It did not cause any casualties.

Moscow claimed on Thursday that Ukraine had been “exterminating the civilian population of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk” over a prolonged period and mounting civilian casualties amounted to “genocide of the Russian-speaking population of Donbas”.

Wearing military fatigues rather than his customary blue civilian suit, Mr Pushilin claimed that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would be ordering an offensive in the Donbas in the very near future.

Mr Pushilin maintained that Ukrainian forces were already in place to carry out the operation and that there have been movements of armour and artillery. He said his administration was organising a “mass, centralised departure” of the population to the Russian federation, adding that “women, children and elderly people are subject to evacuation first”. Rostov, he said, would be the initial destination.

The separatist claims were immediately dismissed by western and Ukrainian officials as part of a build-up of pretexts by the Russians to justify military action. Earlier this month the separatists had claimed that British special forces and Polish mercenaries were detected in the Donbas, plotting sabotage. On Thursday a spate of missile and artillery attacks at the border were described by the west as Russian “false flag operations”.

Kiev denied that any military action has been planned for the Donbas or that it was targeting a chemical facility in the area.

Foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said: “We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities. Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only.”

A senior western security official said: “This may be part of an intensifying picture of developments that Russia might seek to use as a pretext for military action. We have anticipated this, and we have said we are in a most dangerous phase now.”

The separatist leadership claimed that the evacuation from Donetsk had been agreed with Russian authorities. But Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “I do not know what is happening over there, I do not possess such information.”

Monitors from the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) did not report any build-up of forces. But they charted 35 ceasefire violations in the past 24 hours.

Local people living in the area bordering Donetsk and the second breakaway republic, Luhansk, told The Independent that they had not noticed the arrival of new Ukrainian troops or equipment. However, residents in a number of areas said there has been a definite increase in the volume of artillery rounds.

Elena Babenko, a schoolteacher in Luhnask Oblast, said: “We are hearing more heavy firing now than before – this is something new, this is something we haven’t heard for many months. Also the [mobile] phone signal disappeared for a long time. With all that is going on, people are very worried.”

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