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Ukrainian leaders victims of a bombardment on the front


MOSCOW — Senior Ukrainian military officials came under bombardment while touring the frontline of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Officials fled to a bomb shelter before leaving the area, according to an Associated Press reporter who was on tour.

Earlier on Saturday, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine on Saturday ordered a full military mobilization amid a spike in violence in the war-torn region and fears in the West that Russia is using the conflict as a pretext for an invasion.

Ukraine and the two regions held by Russian-backed rebels accuse each other of escalation. Russia said on Saturday that at least two shells fired from a government-controlled part of eastern Ukraine landed across the border.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba dismissed the claim as “a false statement”.

Ukraine’s military said shelling killed a soldier early Saturday in the government part of the Donetsk region and separatist forces were placing artillery in residential areas to try to provoke a response.

The rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia on Friday with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to portray Ukraine as the aggressor.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.

MOSCOW (AP) — Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine on Saturday ordered a full military mobilization amid a spike in violence in the war-torn region and fears in the West that Russia is using the conflict as a pretext for an invasion.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russian separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, cited an “immediate threat of aggression” from Ukrainian forces in his announcement. Ukrainian officials have vehemently denied plans to take rebel-held areas by force.

“I appeal to all men in the republic who can hold arms to defend their families, their children, their wives, their mothers,” Pushilin said. “Together we will achieve the coveted victory we all need.”

A similar statement followed from his counterpart from the Luhansk region. With around 150,000 Russian troops currently stationed around Ukraine’s borders, the long-simmering separatist conflict could provide the spark for a wider attack.

Separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting for nearly eight years. But violence along the line of contact between the two sides, including a humanitarian convoy hit by shelling, has intensified in recent days.

“They are unfolding and are now ready to strike,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said during a visit to Lithuania, where he assured the three Baltic countries that they would not be alone in the face of security threats from Russia.

Ukraine’s military said shelling killed a soldier on Saturday in the government part of the Donetsk region and separatist forces were placing artillery in residential areas to try to provoke a response.

The rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia on Friday with an announcement that appeared to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to portray Ukraine as the aggressor.

US President Joe Biden said Friday evening that based on the latest US intelligence, he was now “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine and attack the capital, Kiev.

“From that point on, I’m confident he made the decision,” Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.” He reiterated that the attack could happen in the “coming days”.

In a sign of heightened concern over an invasion, the NATO military alliance has moved staff from its liaison office in Kyiv to a city in western Ukraine and Brussels. A NATO official told The Associated Press that the safety of his personnel was the main concern.

“We don’t know exactly what President Putin’s intentions are, but the omens are bleak, and that’s why we need to stay strong together,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told officials attending the annual conference in Munich on Saturday. on security.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met US Vice President Kamala Harris during the conference. Harris called the current events “a defining moment in history” and warned Russia that it would face “unprecedented” financial costs if it attacked Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials have pushed back against the separatists’ suggestion that Ukraine initiated the latest violence in the east of the country. “We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

Ukraine’s ruling Servant of the People party echoed its sentiment in an online statement on Saturday and accused Russia of “trying to artificially create a pretext for full-scale aggression against Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Russia conducted massive nuclear exercises on Saturday. The Kremlin said Putin, who has pledged to protect Russia’s national interests against what he sees as encroaching Western threats, was watching the drills with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko from the Kremlin’s Situation Room.

Notably, the planned exercise involves the Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula after seizing it from Ukraine in 2014.

Underscoring Western concerns over an imminent invasion, a US defense official said about 40-50% of ground forces deployed near the Ukrainian border have moved to attack positions closer to the border. the border.

The change has been in the works for about a week, other officials said, and does not necessarily mean Putin has decided to start an invasion. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. military assessments.

The official also said the number of Russian ground units known as battalion tactical groups in the border area had risen to 125 from 83 two weeks ago. Each group has 750 to 1,000 soldiers.

The lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: US and Russian defense chiefs spoke on Friday. French President Emmanuel Macron scheduled a phone call with Putin on Sunday. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have agreed to meet next week.

Immediate concerns centered on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has claimed some 14,000 lives. Violations of a 2015 ceasefire agreement, including shelling and firing along the line of contact, are common.

However, the violence has escalated in recent days. A bomb blast hit a car outside the main government building in the rebel-held city of Donetsk on Friday. The leader of the separatist forces, Denis Sinenkov, said the car was his, the Interfax news agency reported. Targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held towns.

Adding to tensions, two explosions rocked the rebel-held city of Lugansk on Saturday morning. The Luhansk Information Center said one of the explosions occurred in a natural gas pipeline. The center quoted witnesses as saying the other was at a vehicle service station.

There were no immediate reports of casualties and no independent confirmation of the circumstances of the three explosions. Lugansk officials blamed a gas main explosion earlier in the week on sabotage.

On Saturday morning, separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as Donbas, said thousands of residents of rebel-held areas had been evacuated to Russia.

More than 6,600 people have been evacuated from Donetsk and some 25,000 people have left Lugansk, 10,000 of whom are preparing to leave, separatist officials said.

Separatist officials announced Friday their intention to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people. Russia has issued around 700,000 passports to residents of rebel-held territories. Claims that Russian citizens are in danger could be used to justify military action.

Pushilin, head of the Donetsk rebel government, claimed in a video statement that Ukraine would order an imminent offensive in the region.

Metadata from two videos released by the separatists announcing the evacuation show the files were created two days ago, the Associated Press confirmed. US authorities have alleged that the Kremlin’s efforts to come up with a pretext for the invasion could include staged and pre-recorded videos.

Authorities in Russia’s Rostov region have declared a state of emergency due to the influx of evacuees. Media on Saturday morning described chaos at some of the summer camps intended to house residents of eastern Ukraine.

Reports said there were long lines of buses and hundreds of people waiting in the cold for hours to be housed without access to food or toilets. Some of the camps would have run out of space.

Putin ordered the Russian government to offer 10,000 rubles (about $130) to each evacuee, an amount equivalent to about half of an average monthly salary in the war-ravaged Donbass region.

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Jim Heintz in Moscow, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Aamer Madhani in Munich contributed to this story.

Follow AP’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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