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Pro-Russian rebels claim to evacuate residents of Donetsk but West says Russia is looking for a pretext for war

Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine announced a massive ‘evacuation’ of civilians to Russia on Friday, shortly before a car bomb exploded – raising fears a critical moment had been reached in Kremlin “false flag operations” that could be used to justify military action.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) loaded civilians onto buses as warning sirens sounded.

Russian media claimed the blast happened in front of an official building in Donetsk. Pro-Russian separatist leader Denis Pushilin said earlier that the local population was being made safe inside Russia because of shelling by Ukrainian forces.

Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of “systematic” human rights abuses and insisted that large-scale military exercises with Belarusian forces near 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 his fellow leaders that only an ‘overwhelming show of Western solidarity’ can stop a Russian invasion and that Mr Putin must be faced with allies who ‘speak with one voice’.

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

Senior City figures said The Independent they are prepared to receive instructions to block transactions and freeze assets, under the sanctions that the UK will impose if the invasion continues. Liz Truss, the foreign minister, said she would target “any company of interest” to the Russian state, rather than just state-owned companies – but declined to say what the penalties would be.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the summit on Friday that the threat to global security was “more complex and likely higher” than during the Cold War.

Russian media said the explosion in Donetsk was caused by an explosive device in the car of the breakaway republic’s police chief. He caused no casualties.

Moscow claimed on Thursday that Ukraine had “exterminated the civilian population of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics” for an extended period and that the increase in civilian casualties amounted to “genocide of the Russian-speaking population of Donbass”.

Dressed in military fatigues rather than his usual blue civilian suit, Mr Pushilin claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would order an offensive in Donbass in the very near future.

Mr. Pushilin maintained that the Ukrainian forces were already in place to carry out the operation and that there were movements of armor and artillery. He said his administration was organizing a “massive and centralized departure” of the population to the Russian Federation, adding that “women, children and the elderly must be evacuated first”. Rostov, he said, would be the initial destination.

The separatist claims were immediately dismissed by Western and Ukrainian officials as part of a buildup of pretexts by the Russians to justify military action. Earlier this month, separatists claimed that British special forces and Polish mercenaries had been detected in Donbass, plotting sabotage. On Thursday, a series of missile and artillery attacks on the border were described by the West as Russian “false flag operations”.

Kyiv denied that any military action was planned for Donbass or that it targeted a chemical facility in the region.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said: “We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports of Ukraine’s offensive operations or alleged acts of sabotage at chemical production facilities. Ukraine does not carry out or plan such actions in the Donbass. We are fully committed to diplomatic dispute resolution only.

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

The separatist leaders claimed that the evacuation of Donetsk had been agreed with the Russian authorities. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “I don’t know what’s going on there, I don’t have such information.”

OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) observers reported no reinforcement of forces. But they tallied 35 ceasefire violations in the past 24 hours.

Residents of the region bordering Donetsk and the breakaway second republic, Luhansk, said The Independent that they had not noticed the arrival of new Ukrainian troops or equipment. However, residents of a number of areas said there had been a marked increase in the volume of artillery fire.

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

The Independent Gt

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