Mass Ukraine Evacuations as Over 60,000 Flee to Russia Amid Invasion Fears

More than 60,000 residents of the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions have fled to eastern Russia as tensions mount over a possible Moscow-led invasion of Ukraine, Russian officials said on Monday.

The Russian-backed separatist enclaves announced a mass evacuation of their residents beginning on February 18, as fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists intensified.

Kremlin-backed rebel leaders have warned, without evidence, that Ukrainian armed forces could launch an attack on the separatist regions. The Ukrainian government has consistently denied plans to do so, while the United States has warned that Moscow may fabricate a "pretext" to justify invading Ukraine.

Alexander Chupriyan, the acting head of the Russian Federation's Ministry of Emergency Situations, told reporters that more than 61,000 residents of the Donetsk People's Republic and its fellow breakaway Ukrainian enclave, the Luhansk People's Republic, have arrived so far in Russia's Rostov Oblast region, according to the Interfax news agency.

The ministry on Friday said it expected that some 700,000 people would be evacuated in total from the Donetsk region to Russia.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic, which is being backed by Russia in its war with Kyiv, announced a mass evacuation to the Rostov region, saying women, children and the elderly would be prioritized.

His announcement came as shelling in the region escalated, with the eastern Ukraine conflict zone seeing the heaviest artillery bombardment for years on Friday.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Friday said the two self-proclaimed regions in eastern Ukraine saw more than 1,400 explosions, with one civilian casualty in Donetsk.

Some 553 explosions were reported in Donetsk, and 860 were logged in Luhansk, according to the OSCE's Special Monitoring Mission, which is deployed in the conflict zone.

The Ukrainian Joint Forces Command claimed that separatist forces launched "heavy armament fire" in their own Luhansk territory on Sunday night as part of a push to "falsely accuse" Ukrainian armed forces and escalate tensions.

"With Ukrainian defenders refraining from any aggressive acts that could possibly trigger a violent response, the occupation forces continue to destroy civilian infrastructure on the temporarily occupied territories and sporadically shell civilian settlements," the command said.

"By doing so, the occupation forces once again demonstrated their cowardice and complete disregard for the lives and health of the local civilian population."

Luhansk officials meanwhile accused Ukrainian forces of "firing artillery into the territory of the LPR along the entire line of contact."

"Presumably they are preparing to attack," separatist officials said.

The People's Militia of the Dontesk republic on Monday also accused Ukrainian forces of attempting to sabotage the Donetsk railway station after a suicide-bomber's remains were allegedly found at the entrance of a market near a railway station. Evacuations are also taking place by train.

OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid said in a statement Saturday that the organization deplored "the spreading of disinformation about an imminent military action by the Ukrainian government forces."

"This critically affects the civilian population in the conflict zone," added Schmid.

Chupriyan told reporters on Monday that nine trains carrying residents from the enclaves have been sent to other Russian regions from the Rostov region.

Roughly 1,000 evacuees have so far been given a one-off payment of 10,000 rubles (USD $129), as per orders from Russian President Vladimir Putin, he added.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Sunday night that President Joe Biden has "accepted in principle" a meeting with Putin, but only "if an invasion hasn't happened."

"We are always ready for diplomacy," said Psaki. "We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences should Russia instead choose war."

Russia Ukraine conflict refugees from Donetsk
People being evacuated from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic enter a tent at the Russian Emergency Ministry camp in the village of Veselo-Voznesenka on the Azov Sea coast, on February 19, 2022. - A Russian region bordering Ukraine declared a state of emergency on February 19, 2022, citing growing numbers of people arriving from separatist-held regions in Ukraine after they received evacuation orders. ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/Getty Images