Russia-installed authorities in occupied southern Ukraine’s Kherson region said Thursday that they have relocated thousands of civilians from the strategically important regional capital, as Ukraine steadily regains territory controlled by Moscow.
The authorities, which the Ukrainian government denounces as traitors, said they were evacuating civilians on humanitarian grounds, but some military analysts said the operation might be a prelude to the withdrawal of Russian military forces from the city of Kherson.
Kyiv called the resettlement efforts a “propaganda show” aimed at intimidating civilians with claims that Ukraine would bomb the city, which was captured in March, early in the Russian invasion, when it became the only regional capital that had fallen to the Russians.
About 5,000 people have already left the city of Kherson, Kirill Strimosov, the acting deputy governor of the region, said on the messaging app Telegram. This number could not be independently verified, but Russian-backed officials said they intend to move up to 60,000 civilians to the eastern side of the Dnipro River.
A video posted by local authorities on Telegram showed dozens of people with suitcases lining up on a ferry, apparently to cross the Dnipro.
City authorities in Alishki, an area where people are transported across the river from Kherson, said on Telegram that people must pack identity documents, food for up to three days, hygiene kits and clothes.
Ukraine says it protected civilians during its counterattack. President Volodymyr Zelensky said that residents of the occupied territories in the south and east of the country should “try to leave”.
“The occupiers will try to recruit men into their army,” Zelensky said in a speech during the night. “Please avoid it as much as you can.”
He said parallel recruitment efforts are taking place in Donetsk and Luhansk, two provinces in the east of the country that Moscow has also annexed.
Kherson is a major target of the Ukrainian counter-attack. The region is one of four Ukrainian provinces linking Russia by land to Crimea, which Moscow has controlled since 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday declared martial law in the four provinces, including Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk, after illegally annexing them this month.
Kherson, where thousands of Russian troops are stationed, allows Russian troops to operate on the western side of the Dnipro River, which divides the country in two. Almost all of the territory held by Russia in Ukraine is located on the eastern side, which makes it vulnerable on the western bank, and the bridges near the city have been repeatedly bombed by Ukrainian forces.
Many Ukrainians have already fled Kherson, often heading to the territory controlled by the country’s forces. Ukrainian authorities have been reluctant to reveal details of their counterattack, but the country’s southern military command said it shot down a spy drone in the province on Wednesday.
In a statement on Facebook on Thursday, it said the military situation in general remained “difficult but controlled”.
On Thursday, the spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, Lieutenant-General Igor Konashenkov, said that Ukrainian forces tried unsuccessfully to break through Russian lines in the region. He was quoted by the Russian state news agency TASS.
Russian authorities appear to be preparing the public for a possible withdrawal from parts of the Kherson region as well as other territorial losses, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group. She cited the appearance of a senior military commander on Russian television, who spoke of the need to make “difficult decisions” in the province.
A British intelligence report said, Thursday, that there is evidence that the Russian authorities are considering a withdrawal from the western bank of the Dnipro River. She said it would be difficult to get troops and equipment out across the river.
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