Russian Separatists Tell Women, Children To Evacuate Ukraine Amid Shelling

The leader of the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine on Friday announced a plan to evacuate residents in Donetsk en masse to southeast Russia, amid a sharp increase in shelling in the region.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic which is being backed by Russia in its war with Kyiv, announced the move on social media, saying women, children and the elderly would be prioritized.

"As of today, February 18, a mass, centralized evacuation of the population to the Russian Federation has been organized. Women, children and the elderly are to be evacuated first," Pushilin said in a video message, according to the Interfax news agency.

Pushilin said that "by agreement with the Russian Federation," Donetsk residents may be evacuated to the Rostov region.

"The evacuees will be provided with everything they need," Pushilin said.

"All conditions have been created for a quick transition at checkpoints. Heads of enterprises and institutions need to organize the evacuation of employees' families. Territorial defense headquarters should provide transport for the evacuation of civilians," the head of the Donetsk People's Republic said.

According to Reuters, a source in Donetsk said there were no signs yet of an evacuation. Russian officials have yet to comment on the evacuation plans.

Interfax news agency cited a source in the region as saying that several hundred thousand people plan to evacuate to Russia's Rostov Oblast (region).

It comes as fears grow of an imminent Moscow-led invasion of Ukraine, and shortly after the Russian defense ministry said Russian President Vladimir Putin will oversee nuclear missile drills on Saturday involving Russian "strategic forces."

The ministry said ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched as part of the drills, according to Interfax.

President Joe Biden's administration on Thursday said that Russia could invade Ukraine in the coming days.

Western officials have estimated some 150,000 Russian troops are massed at the border with Ukraine. Moscow has repeatedly denied that it is planning to invade, and has even claimed this week that it has begun to withdraw some troops. Ukraine and the U.S. have shut down the claims as false.

News of the planned mass evacuation comes as shelling in the region has escalated in recent days, with the eastern Ukraine conflict zone on Friday seeing the heaviest artillery bombardment for years, according to Reuters.

Ukraine on Thursday accused pro-Russian separatists in the region of shelling a kindergarten on Thursday, a move the Moscow-backed rebels said was in response to mortars and grenades falling on its occupied territory.

The senior Biden administration official claimed on Wednesday that Moscow may fabricate a "pretext" to justify invading Kyiv. They said the U.S. expects "false reports" from Russian state media over the coming days.

"We don't know what form the false pretext will take, but we hope the world is ready. Just as Russia's claims about withdrawing troops were false, so will be whatever pretext they invent to justify this war of choice," the official said.

Update 02/18/22, 10:10 a.m. ET: This article was updated with additional background.

Denis Pushilin
Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed chairman of the pro-Russian Donetsk People's Republic, in Donetsk, Ukraine. On Friday, he announced a plan to evacuate residents in Donetsk en masse to southeast Russia, amid a sharp increase in shelling in the region. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images