The two pro-Moscow separatist regions in eastern Ukraine will launch a “mass evacuation” of its civilians into Russia starting Friday, accusing Kyiv of planning to invade the breakaway territory.
Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said in a televised address that the evacuation into the neighboring Rostov region has been coordinated with “Russian leadership.”
“Women, children and the elderly are to be evacuated first,” Pushilin said.
Luhansk People’s Republic leader Leonid Pasechnik followed up with evacuation orders into Russia shortly afterward.
Pushilin claimed that Ukraine was planning to launch an offensive against the breakaway region, pointing to Kyiv’s alleged build-up of troops and weapons near the line of contact between the opposing sides.
“President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, will soon order the military to go on the offensive, implement a plan to invade the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics,” Pushilin said.
“Their weapons are pointed at civilians today.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister quickly denied having plans to attack, calling the claims “Russian disinformation reports.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday he was not aware of the Donetsk or Luhansk republics’ evacuation plans.
Images posted to social media appear to show civilians in the Donbas queuing outside of ATMs shortly after the evacuation announcements.
Meanwhile, screenshots posted to social media show automated text messages ordering citizens to evacuate and advising them not to panic.
A day earlier, Ukraine accused the Russian-backed rebels of shelling a kindergarten in the Kyiv-controlled town of Stanytsia Luhanska, injuring two teachers.
Ukraine’s government and the separatists in the region known as the Donbas have traded blame for the latest flare-up in fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite signaling willingness to continue talks with Western leaders over the Ukraine crisis, claimed this week that Kyiv was committing “genocide” in the Donbas.
The U.S. — which says its intelligence indicates a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine with over 100,000 troops surrounding its western neighbor — has warned that Russia may be plotting a false-flag operation as a “pretext” to launch an offensive.
“All Kyiv has to do is sit down at the negotiation table with representatives of the Donbas and agree on political, military, economic and humanitarian measures to end the conflict,” Putin saidFriday following Pushilin’s announcement, referring to the 2015 Minsk agreements that Kyiv is reluctant to pursue.