Russian occupation authorities in the Ukrainian city of Kherson told civilians on Saturday they should leave immediately because of what they called the tense military situation as Ukraine’s forces advance.
Thousands of civilians have been leaving for days across the Dnipro River after warnings about a Ukrainian offensive to recapture the city. The latest warning was delivered with renewed urgency.
“Take care of the safety of your family and friends! Do not forget documents, money, valuables and clothes,” Russian-installed authorities said.
At Oleshky on the opposite bank of the Dnipro, Reuters saw people arriving by river boat from Kherson, loaded with boxes, bags and pets. One woman carried a toddler under one arm and a dog under the other.
Some boats were loaded with vegetables and pallets of food. Staff from Russia’s emergency ministry carried elderly people and children in prams from the vessels. Families then waited to board buses to Russian-annexed Crimea.
“I really didn’t want to (leave), I’m still in work,” one resident told Reuters. “We wanted to stay here in the region, but now we don’t know.”
The Russian-installed leader of the region said this week that Russia was planning to move an estimated 10,000 residents a day from Kherson and that Russia was preparing to take in residents in anticipation of Ukraine’s counterattack.
The battle for Kherson, which has been under Russian control for almost the whole of the eight-month war, appears to be reaching a critical juncture as advancing Ukrainian forces threaten to pin Russian troops along the Dnipro’s west bank.
Despite the latest warning, the occupation authorities invited people still in the city on Saturday to attend an “evening of Russian literature, music and art” in Kherson’s Palace of Culture, with a book reading and orchestra playing.
Ukraine has imposed an information blackout from the Kherson front, but Russian commander General Sergei Surovikin said this week the situation in Kherson was “already difficult” and Russia was “not ruling out difficult decisions” there.
In a briefing on Saturday, the Russian defence ministry said its forces had repelled a Ukrainian attempt to break through its line of control in the Kherson region. Reuters could not independently confirm battlefield claims.
Putin has said he is prepared to resort to nuclear weapons if necessary to defend what Russia claims as its own lands. The declared annexation was condemned as illegal by Ukraine, its allies and the United Nations General Assembly.
Kherson is the only provincial capital that Russia has captured intact and held since its Feb. 24 invasion. The Kherson region was one of four that President Vladimir Putin said last month that Moscow was claiming “forever” as its own territory.