Civilians try to flee east Ukraine as Russia prepares attack
Desperate evacuation attempts from eastern Ukraine were underway Thursday as authorities warned of an imminent Russian offensive, following the devastation around Kyiv that has shocked the world.
Russian troops have been withdrawing from around the capital and Ukraine’s north, leaving a trail of destruction behind them, as they prepare for an expected assault on the country’s southeast.
The scenes of carnage left behind by retreating troops in towns like Bucha have caused outrage and led to a wave of fresh sanctions against Moscow.
But on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that Moscow was undeterred and continued "to accumulate fighting force to realise their ill ambitions in (eastern) Donbas".
"They are preparing to resume an active offensive," he said.
Begging civilians to leave the region "while it is still possible", local officials in Donbas’ Lugansk and Donetsk said the region was already facing constant indiscriminate shelling.
"We can see clearly that before the enemy goes to full attack, they will just destroy places completely," local governor Sergiy Gaiday in Lugansk told Ukrainian broadcaster Channel 24.
Gaiday said on Facebook that more than 1,200 people had been evacuated from Lugansk on Wednesday, but that efforts were being hampered by artillery fire, with some areas already inaccessible.
For those that unable to leave, he said, tonnes of food, medicine and hygiene products were being delivered as part of a massive humanitarian effort.
The head of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration said strikes had targeted aid points.
"The enemy aimed directly there with a goal to destroy the civilians," Pavlo Kyrylenko wrote on Facebook.
He added that people were heeding calls to flee and he would be coordinating evacuation to make it "faster and more effective."
Shells and rockets were also slamming into the industrial city of Severodonetsk, the easternmost city held by Ukrainian forces.
"We have nowhere to go, it’s been like this for days," 38-year-old Volodymyr told AFP standing opposite a burning building in the city.
More than 11 million people have been displaced since Russia invaded on February 24, aiming to seize the capital.
With that goal thwarted, it is instead trying to create a land link between occupied Crimea and Moscow-backed separatist statelets in Donbas.
Ukrainian forces are also regrouping for the offensive, including on a two-lane highway through the rolling eastern plains connecting Kharkiv and Donetsk.
Trench positions were being dug, and the road was littered with anti-tank obstacles.
"We’re waiting for them!" said a lieutenant tasked with reinforcing the positions, giving a thumbs up.
The evacuation calls are being fuelled by fears of fresh atrocities, after chilling discoveries in areas from which Moscow’s troops have withdrawn.
US President Joe Biden said "major war crimes" were being committed in Ukraine, where images have emerged in recent days of bodies with their hands bound or in shallow graves.
"Civilians executed in cold blood, bodies dumped into mass graves, the sense of brutality and inhumanity left for all the world to see, unapologetically," Biden said.
In one of the worst affected towns, Bucha, some residents were still trying to learn the fate of loved ones, while others were hoping to forget.
Tetiana Ustymenko’s son and his two friends were gunned down in the street, and she buried them in the garden of the family home.
"How can I live now?" she said.
The Kremlin denies responsibility for any civilian deaths and Putin on Wednesday accused Ukrainian authorities of "crude and cynical provocations" in Bucha.
But the German government pointed to satellite pictures taken while the town was still under Moscow’s control, which appear to show bodies in the streets.
Russia’s denials "are in our view not tenable", said German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit.
And Ukrainian officials have warned other areas may have suffered worse than Bucha, including nearby Borodianka.
"Locals talk about how planes came in during the first days of the war and fired rockets at them from low altitudes at these buildings," Ukraine’s Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky told local media.
Officials have alleged that Russian troops are now trying to cover up atrocities elsewhere to prevent further international outcry, including in the besieged city of Mariupol.
Ukrainian human rights official Lyudmila Denisova said on Telegram on Wednesday, citing witness testimony, that Russian forces have brought mobile crematoria to burn bodies and other heavy equipment to clear debris in the city.
Western powers have already pummelled Russia with debilitating economic sanctions, which forced Moscow on Wednesday to make foreign debt payments on dollar-denominated bonds in rubles, raising the prospect of a potential default.
On Wednesday, the White House unveiled further measures targeting Russia’s top banks and two of President Vladimir Putin’s daughters, while Britain sanctioned two banks and vowed to eliminate all Russian oil and gas imports by the end of the year.
The EU is also poised to implement a fifth round of sanctions cutting off Russian coal imports -- and European Council chief Charles Michel said that "sooner or later", it must also impose oil and gas sanctions.
Elsewhere, the US and Britain have pressed to have Russia excluded from the UN Human Rights Council, with a vote in the General Assembly scheduled for Thursday.
But in his nightly address, Zelensky said although the sanctions package had "a spectacular look... this is not enough."
He urged countries to completely cut off Russia’s banks from the international financial system, and to stop buying the country’s oil.
"It is the export of oil that is one of the foundations of Russian aggression," he said.
"One of the foundations that allows the Russian leadership not to take seriously the negotiations on ending the war."
Peace talks between the sides have made little progress so far, and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has said there is no sign Putin has dropped "his ambition to control the whole of Ukraine".