Tens of thousands of civilians and Russian-appointed officials are being moved out of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region ahead of a Ukrainian offensive, says the Russia-installed local leader.
Vladimir Saldo said all Russian-appointed departments and ministries would cross the Dnieper River.
Some 50-60,000 civilians would also leave in an “organised, gradual displacement”, he said earlier. Ukraine has called on residents to ignore the Russian move.
The head of Kherson’s regional administration said Russia wanted to take civilians hostage and use them as human shields. The transfer or deportation of civilians by an occupying power from occupied territory is considered a war crime.
In a separate development, Russia’s Vladimir Putin said he had signed a decree imposing martial law on four Ukrainian regions, including Kherson, which Moscow annexed last month in a move rejected as illegal by the international community.
He told Russia’s Security Council that it would give regional leaders additional powers to maintain social order and safeguard important facilities.
On Tuesday night, residents in Kherson started receiving text messages urging them to evacuate immediately to avoid shelling of residential areas by Ukrainian forces. The messages said transport across the Dnipro River would be available from 07:00 on Wednesday.
“They are told to evacuate because the evil Ukrainians are going to shell the city,” one resident told the BBC, asking to remain anonymous.”People are panicking because of propaganda.”
Russian TV footage on Wednesday showed a number of people gathering near the west bank of the Dnieper. As they queued for boats, it was not clear how many were leaving.
Serhiy Khlan, an aide to the ousted head of the Kherson region, suggested the “deportations theatre” could be acting as cover for a much bigger Russian move: a complete military evacuation from the west bank of the river.
“I foresee the withdrawal of troops,” he said, adding that he expected Russian forces to attempt to destroy the city after leaving. -BBC