Ukrainian insurgents mobilize troops amid fears of Russian invasion

MOSCOW (AP) – Leaders of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have ordered a full military mobilization on Saturday, while Western leaders have done more …

MOSCOW (AP) – Pro-Russian separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have ordered full military mobilization on Saturday, while Western leaders have issued increasingly serious warnings about Russia’s imminent invasion of its neighbor.

In new signs of fear that the war could start in a few days, Germany and Austria have told their citizens to leave Ukraine. German airline Lufthansa has canceled flights to the capital Kiev and Odessa, a Black Sea port that could be the main target of the invasion.

NATO’s Liaison Office in Kyiv said the redeployment of personnel to Brussels and Lviv in western Ukraine. Meanwhile, top Ukrainian military officials came under fire while bypassing the front of the nearly eight-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Officials fled to the bomb shelter before rushing out of the area, according to an Associated Press reporter who was on tour.

Violence has intensified in eastern Ukraine in recent days as Ukraine and two rebel-held regions accuse each other of escalating. Russia said on Saturday that at least two shells fired from a government-controlled part of eastern Ukraine had crossed the border, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba dismissed the statement as a “fake statement”.

For years, sporadic violence has erupted along the line separating Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed insurgents, but the recent surge in shelling and bombing could spark a full-scale war.

The United States and many European countries have argued for months that Russia, which has sent about 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, is trying to create grounds for an invasion.

“They are unfolding and are now ready to strike,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Saturday during a visit to Lithuania.

US Vice President Kamala Harris met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, opening the meeting by saying the world is at a “crucial moment in history.”

Zelensky suggested that the West has some responsibility, not responding more harshly when Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.

“If a bomb funnel appears in the schoolyard, the children have a question – has the world forgotten its mistakes of the twentieth century ?! What do attempts at appeasement lead to! ” said the Ukrainian leader.

Earlier on Saturday, the head of the pro-Russian separatist government in the Donetsk region of Ukraine Denis Pushylin in his statement referred to the “imminent threat of aggression” by Ukrainian forces. Ukrainian officials have categorically denied plans to seize rebel-held territory by force.

“I appeal to all men in the country who can hold weapons to protect their families, their children, wives and mothers,” Pushylin said. “Together we will achieve the desired victory that we all need.”

A similar statement was made by his colleague in Luhansk region. On Friday, the rebels began evacuating civilians to Russia with an announcement that appears to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to label Ukraine an aggressor.

German Foreign Minister Analena Burbock said evacuation orders could be a tactic to give a spark for a wider attack.

“To be clear, Ukraine did not give any grounds for the evacuation that was ordered yesterday,” she said. “These are facts on the spot. We must not allow the alleged causes of the war to be built on hot air. “

U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday night that based on the latest U.S. intelligence, he is now “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and attack the capital.

“At this point, I’m convinced he made the decision,” Biden said. “We have reason to believe that.” He reiterated that the attack could take place “in the coming days.”

Meanwhile, Russia held a massive nuclear exercise on Saturday. The Kremlin said that Putin, who promised to protect Russia’s national interests from threats from the West, who, in his opinion, is watching the exercise with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko from the situation room.

It should be noted that the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea is taking part in the planned exercises. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula after capturing it in Ukraine in 2014.

Stressing the West’s concern about the imminent invasion, the US defense official said that an estimated 40% to 50% of the ground forces deployed near the Ukrainian border had moved to the next position closer to the border.

According to other officials, the change lasted about a week, and that doesn’t necessarily mean Putin has decided to launch an invasion. A defense official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. internal 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. In each group from 750 to 1000 soldiers.

The lines of communication between Moscow and the West remain open: US and Russian defense leaders spoke on Friday. French President Emmanuel Macron has scheduled a telephone conversation with Putin on Sunday. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have agreed to meet next week.

Immediate concerns have focused on eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian insurgents since 2014 in a conflict that has killed about 14,000 people. Violations of the 2015 ceasefire agreement, including shelling and gunfire along the line of contact, were common.

However, targeted violence is unusual in rebel-held areas. The head of the separatist forces Denis Sinenkov said that on Friday as a result of an explosion in the government building the car was hit, according to Interfax.

The Ukrainian military said soldiers were killed in a shelling in the Donetsk region government on Saturday, and that separatist forces are deploying artillery in residential areas to try to provoke a response.

On Saturday morning, two explosions erupted in the rebel-held city of Luhansk, escalating tensions. The Luhansk Information Center reported that one of the explosions took place in a gas pipeline. The center cited witnesses who said the second was at a car service station.

There were no direct reports of casualties or independent confirmation of the circumstances of the three blasts. Authorities in Luhansk accused the pipeline of exploding earlier this week.

By Saturday morning, separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, which form Ukraine’s industrial center known as the Donbass, said thousands of residents of rebel-held areas had been evacuated to Russia.

More than 6,600 people have been evacuated from Donetsk, about 25,000 have left Luhansk, and 10,000 are preparing to leave, separatists said.

Russia has issued about 700,000 passports to residents of rebel-held areas. Statements that Russian citizens are threatened with extinction can be used to justify hostilities.

Pushylin, head of the Donetsk insurgent government, said in a video statement that Ukraine was going to order a quick offensive in the area.

Metadata from two videos released by the separatists announcing the evacuation shows that the files were created two days ago, the Associated Press confirmed. U.S. officials say the Kremlin’s attempts to come up with a basis for the invasion may include staging pre-recorded videos.

Authorities in the Rostov region of Russia have declared a state of emergency due to the influx of evacuees. The media on Saturday morning described the chaos in some summer camps designed to accommodate residents of eastern Ukraine.

Reports say there are long queues of buses and hundreds of people waiting for hours in the cold to be accommodated without access to food and bathrooms.

Putin has ordered the Russian government to offer each evacuee 10,000 rubles (about $ 130), equivalent to about half the average monthly salary in eastern Ukraine.

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Geir Mulson in Berlin, Aamer Madhani in Munich and Yuras Karmanov from Kyiv, Ukraine, have contributed to this story.

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

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