Russia ordered civilians to leave a sliver of Ukraine along the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, a major extension of an evacuation order that Kyiv says amounts to the forced depopulation of occupied territory.
Russia had previously ordered civilians out of a pocket it controls on the west bank of the river, where Ukrainian forces have been advancing to capture the city of Kherson. Russian-installed officials said on Tuesday they were now extending that order to a 15-km (9-mile) buffer zone along the east bank as well.
Ukraine says the evacuations include forced deportations from occupied territory, a war crime. Russia, which claims to have annexed the area, says it is taking civilians to safety because of a threat Ukraine might use unconventional weapons.
"Due to the possibility of the use of prohibited methods of war by the Ukrainian regime, as well as information that Kyiv is preparing a massive missile strike on the Kakhovka hydroelectric station, there is an immediate danger of the Kherson region being flooded," Vladimir Saldo, Russian-installed head of occupied Kherson province, said in a video message.
"Given the situation, I have decided to expand the evacuation zone by 15 km from the Dnipro," he said. "The decision will make it possible to create a layered defense in order to repel Ukrainian attacks and protect civilians."
Moscow has accused Kyiv of planning to use a so-called "dirty bomb" to spread radiation, or to blow up a dam to flood towns and villages in Kherson province. Kyiv says accusations it would use such tactics on its own territory are absurd, but that Russia might be planning such actions itself to blame Ukraine.
The mouth of the wide Dnipro River has become one of the most consequential frontlines in the war in recent weeks, with Ukrainian forces advancing to expel Russian troops from their only pocket on the west bank. Russia has thousands of troops there and has been trying to reinforce the area. Ukraine's advance has slowed in recent days, with commanders citing weather and tougher terrain.
Saldo, the Russian-imposed occupation leader for the province, identified seven towns on the east bank that would now be evacuated, comprising the main populated settlements along that stretch of the river.
The European Union accused Moscow on Tuesday of launching a new program to illegally conscript men in Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014, to fight in its forces. The EU statement said Moscow was disproportionately conscripting members of Crimea's indigenous Tatar minority to fight in its war.
Russia, which launched its "special military operation" in Ukraine in February, has announced it has completed a mobilization drive ordered in September by President Vladimir Putin, saying it had called up 300,000 reservists and more were not needed.
But Putin has not issued a decree ending the mobilization, raising concern he could restart it without notice. A senior Russian ruling party senator said on Tuesday a decree formally ending the mobilization was not needed.
Thousands of Russian men have fled abroad to escape conscription to a conflict which has killed thousands, displaced millions, shaken the global economy and reopened Cold War-era divisions.
Just north of Kherson, Russia fired four missiles into the Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv overnight, demolishing half an apartment building. Reuters saw rescue workers recover the body of an elderly woman from the rubble.
As rush hour was under way, passersby walked past a two-story school, the front of which had been torn off by the force of the blast that left a massive crater.
"This is what the barbarian horde does," said Irena Siden, 48, the school’s deputy director, standing in front of the gutted building as workers began sweeping up the rubble.
"They (the Russians) are the descendants of the barbarian horde. They stole our history and how they are trying to steal our culture."
Russia fired a huge volley of missiles at Ukrainian cities on Monday in what Putin called retaliation for an attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet at the weekend. Ukraine said it shot most of those missiles down, but some had hit power stations, knocking out electricity and water supplies.
"That's not all we could have done," Putin said at a televised news conference.
Putin has also suspended cooperation with a U.N.-backed program to escort cargo ships carrying grain out of the war zone. The three-month-old program had lifted a de facto Russian blockade of Ukraine, one of the world's biggest grain producers, and averted a global food crisis.
Russia's suspension of cooperation had raised international fears that a food crisis could return, but so far Moscow has not restored its blockade, with 12 ships able to depart Ukraine on Monday carrying grain, and three more sailing on Tuesday.
Whether those shipments can continue may depend on whether insurers are still willing to underwrite them.
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