MOSCOW – Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine have ordered a full military mobilization on Saturday amid a surge of violence in the war-torn region and fears in the West that Russia could use fighting as a pretext for invasion.

Denis Pushylin, head of the pro-Russian separatist government in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, issued a statement announcing full troop mobilization. A similar message was quickly heard from his colleague from the Luhansk region.

Pushylin referred to the “imminent threat of aggression” by Ukrainian forces, accusations that Ukrainian officials had previously categorically denied.

“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.”

SEE ALSO | Biden said the United States has reason to believe that Russia “intends to attack” Ukraine: “I am convinced”

Separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting for almost eight years. But violence on the line of contact separating the two sides, including the humanitarian convoy affected by the shelling, has intensified in recent days. The explosion of a car on Friday in the city of Donetsk also exacerbated the feeling of anxiety.

Approximately 150,000 Russian troops stationed near Ukraine’s borders, a long-simmering separatist conflict could be a hotbed for a wider attack.

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 Friday, insurgents began evacuating civilians to Russia with an announcement that appears to be part of their and Moscow’s efforts to label Ukraine an aggressor.

US President Joe Biden said late Friday night that he was now “convinced” that Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine and attack the capital, Kyiv.

Biden, who for weeks said the U.S. was unsure whether Putin had decided to send troops to a neighboring country, cited U.S. intelligence as a source of his ominous assessment.

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

Meanwhile, Russia held a massive nuclear exercise on Saturday. The Kremlin said that Putin, who had promised to protect Russia’s national interests from what he believed was an attack on Western threats, had watched the exercise with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in the Kremlin.

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. Each group has between 750 and 1,000 soldiers.

US Vice President Kamala Harris, who attended a security conference in Munich, Germany, on Saturday, warned Russia that it would face “unprecedented” financial costs if it invaded Ukraine, and stressed that the invasion would bring European allies closer to the United States. .

EU Executive Committee Chair Ursula von der Leyen said the EU had prepared significant additional sanctions against Russia in coordination with the US, the UK and Canada, including restricting access to financial markets.

“The Kremlin’s dangerous thinking, which comes directly from the dark past, could cost Russia a prosperous future,” von der Leyen told the Munich Security Conference.

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 been concentrated in 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, violence has escalated in recent days. A car bomb exploded near the main government building in the rebel-held city of Donetsk on Friday. The head of the separatist forces Dzyanis Sinenkou stated that the car was his, Interfax reports. Targeted violence is uncommon in rebel-held cities.

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 bombings. 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.

On Friday, separatist officials announced plans to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people. Russia has issued about 700,000 passports to residents of rebel-held areas. The allegation that Russian citizens are threatened with extinction can be used as an excuse for hostilities.

Pushylin, head of the Donetsk insurgent government, said women, children and the elderly would be the first to leave, and that Russia had prepared for them. In a video statement, Pushylin claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was going to order an imminent 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 began transporting children from an orphanage in Donetsk, while other residents boarded buses to Russia. There were long queues at gas stations, as more and more people were preparing to leave on their own.

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 or bathrooms. In some camps the place ran out.

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

Around an unstable line of contact, a United Nations humanitarian convoy came under fire from rebels in the Luhansk region on Friday, Ukraine’s military chief said. There are no victims. The rebels denied involvement and accused Ukraine of organizing the provocation.

Ukraine refused to plan any offensive.

“We are fully committed to a purely diplomatic settlement of the conflict,” Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

Ukraine’s ruling Servant of the People party reiterated his sentiment in an online statement on Saturday, rejecting “the possibility of liberating the temporarily occupied territories by military means” and accusing Russia of “trying to artificially create a basis for full-scale aggression against Ukraine.” “

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Jim Heinz in Moscow, Geir Mulson in Berlin and Aamer Madhani in Munich have contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2022, Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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