- Most intense shelling since 2015 ceasefire, a source says.
- Moscow calls the situation dangerous.
- West says he fears Russia is preparing a pretext to invade.
MOSCOW/KIEV: Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine said Friday they planned to evacuate residents of their breakaway region to Russia, a stunning twist in a conflict that the West believes Moscow could use to invade of Ukraine.
Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, announced the move on social media and said Russia had agreed to provide accommodation to those leaving. Women, children and the elderly must be evacuated first.
There was no immediate comment from Russian officials or from Kiev. Millions of civilians are said to live in the two rebel-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine; most are Russian-speaking and many have already obtained Russian citizenship.
The conflict zone in eastern Ukraine saw its most intense artillery bombardment in years on Friday, with the Kiev government and separatists taking the blame. Western countries have said they believe the shelling, which began on Thursday and intensified on the second day, is part of a pretext to invade.
The United States said Russia — which it says this week has begun troop withdrawals near Ukraine — had done the opposite: ramping up the force threatening its neighbor to between 169,000 and 190,000 troops, from 100,000 the end of January.
“This is the most significant military mobilization in Europe since World War II,” US Ambassador Michael Carpenter said at a meeting at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
A diplomatic source with years of direct experience with the conflict described the shelling in eastern Ukraine as the most intense since major fighting ended with a ceasefire in 2015.
Nearly 600 explosions were recorded Friday morning, 100 more than Thursday, some involving 152mm and 122mm artillery and large mortars, the source said. At least four shots were fired from tanks.
“They’re shooting – everyone and everything,” the source said. “There hasn’t been anything like this since 2014-15.”
Other officials have disputed that characterization, noting that there had been periods of deadly fighting during the ceasefire and there were no reports of deaths on the frontline so far this week.
Russia denies Western accusations that it is planning an all-out invasion of Ukraine, a country of more than 40 million inhabitants, in what could become Europe’s biggest war in generations.
Western countries said this week that Russian troops are making preparations that normally take place in the final days before an attack, which could take place within days.
Moscow, for its part, said it was closely monitoring the escalation of shelling in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have been dealing with Moscow-backed rebels since 2014. It described the situation as potentially very dangerous.