SOVERODONETSK: Ukraine on Thursday urged its residents in the country’s east to seize their “last chance” to flee mounting Russian attacks, after devastation around the capital kyiv shocked the world.
Six weeks after the invasion, Russian troops have withdrawn from kyiv and northern Ukraine and are massing in the country’s southeast, where desperate attempts are being made to evacuate civilians.
The pullout from kyiv revealed scenes of carnage, including in the city of Bucha, which Ukraine said was evidence of Russian war crimes and triggered a new wave of Western sanctions against Moscow.
On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Russia, which denies responsibility for the killing of civilians, was undeterred and continued to “build up combat strength to realize its evil ambitions in (eastern) Donbas.”
“They are preparing to resume an active offensive,” he said, as officials from the Donbass, Luhansk and Donetsk regions pleaded with civilians to leave.
“These few days may be the last chance to get out,” Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday wrote on Facebook, saying all cities in the region were under fire and one person had been killed in the city of Kreminna.
“Don’t wait to evacuate,” he said, adding: “The enemy is trying to cut off all possible ways to get people out.”
‘nowhere to go’
Gaiday earlier said that more than 1,200 people had been evacuated from Lugansk on Wednesday, but efforts were being hampered by artillery fire, with some areas already inaccessible.
For those who cannot get out, he said, tons of food, medicine and hygiene products are being delivered as part of a massive humanitarian effort.
The head of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration said the attacks were aimed at aid points.
“The enemy aimed directly there with the aim of destroying civilians,” Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote on Facebook.
He added that people were heeding calls to flee and that he would coordinate the evacuation to make it “faster and more effective.”
Large areas of Luhansk and the neighboring Donetsk region have been controlled since 2014 by pro-Russian separatists.
Shells and rockets were also hitting the industrial city of Severodonetsk, the easternmost city held by Ukrainian forces.
“We have nowhere to go, it’s been like this for days,” said Volodymyr, 38. AFPstanding in front of a burning building in Severodonetsk.
More than 11 million people have been displaced since Russia invaded on February 24, with the stated goal of “demilitarizing” Ukraine and supporting Moscow-backed separatists.
It is currently believed that he is trying to create a land link between occupied Crimea and the small states of Donbass.
‘Guns, guns, guns’
Ukrainian forces are also regrouping for the offensive, including on a two-lane highway through the rolling eastern plains connecting Kharkiv and Donetsk.
Trench positions were being dug and the road was littered with anti-tank obstacles.
“We are waiting for you!” said a lieutenant in charge of reinforcing the positions, giving a thumbs up.
Western allies have already sent funds and weapons to help Ukraine, but on Thursday kyiv Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba made a new appeal to NATO for heavy weaponry, including air defense systems, artillery, armored vehicles and jet planes.
“My agenda is very simple. It has only three elements. They are weapons, weapons and weapons,” he told reporters before a meeting with NATO ministers in Brussels.
‘Brutality and inhumanity’
Evacuation calls are being fueled by fears of further atrocities, following chilling discoveries in areas from which Moscow troops have withdrawn.
US President Joe Biden said “significant war crimes” were being committed in Ukraine, where images of bodies with their hands tied or in shallow graves have emerged in recent days.
“Civilians executed in cold blood, bodies dumped in mass graves, the sense of brutality and inhumanity left for the whole world to see, unapologetically,” Biden said.
In one of the worst affected villages, Bucha, some residents were still trying to find out the fate of their loved ones, while others hoped to forget.
Tetiana Ustymenko’s son and his two friends were shot dead in the street and she buried them in the garden of the family home.
“How can I live now?” she said.
The Kremlin denies responsibility for the civilian deaths and President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday accused Ukrainian authorities of “crude and cynical provocations” in Bucha.
But the German government pointed to satellite images taken while the city was still under Moscow’s control, which appear to show bodies in the streets.
Russia’s denials “are not sustainable in our opinion,” German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said.
Ukrainian officials have warned that other areas may have suffered worse than Bucha, including nearby Borodianka.
“The locals talk about how the planes came during the first days of the war and fired rockets from low heights at these buildings,” Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky told local media.
Officials have alleged that Russian troops are now trying to cover up atrocities elsewhere to prevent further international protests, including in the besieged city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian human rights official Lyudmila Denisova said on Wednesday, citing witness testimony, that Russian forces have brought in mobile crematoria to burn bodies and other heavy equipment to clear rubble from the city.
Sanctions ‘not enough’
Western powers have already hit Russia with debilitating economic sanctions, and the United States on Wednesday unveiled more measures targeting Russia’s top banks and two of Putin’s daughters.
Britain has sanctioned two banks and promised to cut off all Russian oil and gas imports by the end of the year, while the European Union is poised to cut Russian coal imports.
This week, EU nations have also expelled more than 200 Russian diplomats and staff, while a UN General Assembly vote on Moscow’s exclusion from the UN Human Rights Council is set to take place on Thursday.
“We are convinced that now is the time to suspend Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council,” the G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States said in a statement. .
But in his late-night speech, Zelensky said the new sanctions “were not enough.”
He urged countries to completely isolate Russia’s banks from the international financial system and stop buying Russian oil.
Oil exports are “one of the bases of Russian aggression,” he said, which “allows Russian leaders not to take negotiations to end the war seriously.”
Peace talks between the sides have made little progress so far, with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg saying there is no sign Putin has abandoned “his ambition to control all of Ukraine.”