The Kremlin-appointed leaders of the occupied Kherson region in southern Ukraine say they have started to evacuate civilians further away from the frontline.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-backed governor of Kherson, told Russian TV late Tuesday they intend to relocate up to 60,000 people to the left bank of the Dnipro river.
Ukraine has previously said that Russia is forcibly deporting Ukrainian civilians; human rights groups and international bodies have warned the practice may constitute a crime against humanity.
Saldo had announced the “organized relocation” of civilians on Telegram on Tuesday.
“Our key task is to save human lives and allow the troops of the Russian Federation to effectively perform their functions in protecting the Kherson region,” he said.
“We will take the civilian population to the left bank in an organized, phased manner.”
All ministries of the Russian-installed civil administration in the Kherson region will also move to the left bank of Dnipro, Saldo said, adding that entry to the region will be closed for civilians for seven days.
Residents in Kherson received a text message asking to leave the city due to the threat of shelling by the Ukrainian army on Wednesday morning, Russian state media RIA Novosti reported.
The “massive deportation of civilians” by Russia could, along with other alleged abuses, constitute crimes against humanity, according to a July report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In September, Ukraine’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Khrystyna Hayovyshyn, told the UN Security Council that Russia had forcibly deported 2.5 million people from Ukraine – including 38,000 children – saying this was a violation of human rights.
The Kremlin’s mass evacuation of citizens from Kherson comes amid Kyiv’s efforts to retake territory in the south.
A Russian official warned of a potential new Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson on Wednesday.
Saldo’s deputy, Kirill Stremousov, said the situation was “stable” but alleged that the Ukrainian army might strike “at any moment” and asked people to cross to the left bank of the Dnipro river.
“On the morning of October 19, the situation on the fronts and approaches to the Kherson region is stable,” he said.
“The enemy is concentrating its forces, and at any moment may start launch the strikes at the civilian population of Kherson and the Kherson region. No one is going to retreat, but we want to save your lives. Please cross to the left bank (of the Dnipro river) as quickly as possible.”
The Ukrainian deputy head of the Kherson region, Yurii Sobolevskyi, has characterized Russia’s “evacuations” as the “semi-voluntary deportation of the Ukrainian population.”
Sobolevskyi confirmed to CNN that the evacuations were underway.
“People are indeed leaving. There are a lot of people in the port of Kherson now,” he said.
“Today they started mass sending SMS to people about the evacuation. They also started handing out booklets about actions during evacuation. At the same time, the message is spreading among the population that if they go to Russia, they will receive certificates for housing.”
Sobolevskyi, who spoke to CNN from Kyiv, accused the Russian-backed authorities of “escalating hysteria.”
“On the one hand, we understand that the Armed Forces of Ukraine will liberate Kherson and the region, accordingly, there may be active hostilities, and this is a risk for the local population.
“On the other hand, there are no guarantees that the evacuated people will be safe (where they are going) and far from the front line. People will make their own decisions – to leave or stay. It is difficult to say what decision they will make.”