Separatists order evacuations amid worst shelling in eastern Ukraine in years πŸ’₯πŸ’₯πŸ’₯

The restive eastern part of the country has witnessed the worst shelling in years over the last two days. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Friday that shelling of Ukrainian territory from areas controlled by separatists had risen dramatically in the past day.

Each side accuses the other of heavy shelling of civilian areas. Ukrainian authorities say there were 60 breaches of the ceasefire Thursday, many of them by heavy weapons.

The Ukrainian government denies that it is planning any offensive in the east, accusing the separatists of launching a “disinformation campaign.”

Authorities in the breakaway states of Donetsk and Luhansk said they were organizing the evacuations. Leonid Pasechnik, the most senior official in the pro-Russian breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic, urged men to take up arms.

“The Russian Federation is ready to provide organized reception and accommodation on its territory of residents of the Luhansk People’s Republic,” said Pasechnik. “Once again, I appeal to all men who are able to hold weapons in their hands, to defend their land.”

Both the Ukrainian government and western officials have warned of the possibility of provocative actions by Russia and the separatist leadership to provide a pretext for a Russian offensive into Ukraine.

“We are in the most dangerous phase,” a Western official told reporters Friday. “They could move at any time. Russia could act within days. Everything we are seeing makes us more concerned about that.”

The official said there are 110 Russian battalion tactical groups — a fighting formation that normally comprises about 1,000 troops — around Ukraine. Russia also has “air power ready to go,” the official added.

US President Joe Biden accused Russia of being “engaged in a false flag operation” on Thursday, shortly after the renewal of shelling between Ukrainian authorities and separatists in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. Biden has said Russia could invade Ukraine “in the next several days.”

According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, there were multiple shelling incidents on Thursday morning across the frontline in the Donbas region. In addition, the Ukrainian military said it had documented a total of 47 violations of a cease-fire agreement in more than 25 locations. Ukraine?s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, blamed Russia for severely violating the cease-fire agreement. (Photo by Jakub Podkowiak/PRESSCOV/Sipa USA)

Both the Ukrainian government and western officials have warned of the possibility of provocative actions by Russia and the separatist leadership to provide a pretext for a Russian offensive into Ukraine.

The Donbas region has seen fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatist fighters since 2014. The Ukrainian government in Kyiv asserts the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic are in effect Russian-occupied. The self-declared republics are not recognized by any government, including Russia. The Ukrainian government refuses to talk directly with either separatist republic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has distributed around 600,000 Russian passports to inhabitants of breakaway regions in recent years, a move that observers have argued could set the stage for a Russian intervention in Ukraine.

More than 14,000 people have died in the conflict in Donbas since 2014. Ukraine says 1.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes, with most staying in the areas of Donbas that remain under Ukrainian control and about 200,000 resettling in the wider Kyiv region.

A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be “catastrophic,” UN Secretary General AntΓ³nio Guterres said Friday during his opening remarks at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, calling for diplomatic efforts to continue.

“I am deeply concerned about heightened tensions and increased speculation about a military conflict in Europe. I still think it will not happen but, if it did, it would be catastrophic,” Guterres said.

US Vice President Kamala Harris from the Munich conference warned that “aggressive action” by Russia would be met with “severe consequences” of economic sanctions.

The latest US intelligence assessment indicates that Russia is continuing with preparations to invade Ukraine, according to a senior US official with direct knowledge and another source directly familiar with the intelligence.

The assessment — described as “bleak” by the senior official — indicates Russia could attack in the coming days.

However, US officials caution they do not know if Putin has made a final decision to invade and note he may delay action or not order it at all. Earlier assessments forecasting military action by Russia this week did not bear out.

CNN’s Nadine Schmidt in Berlin and Amy Cassidy in London contributed to this report.

Separatists order evacuations amid worst shelling in eastern Ukraine in years

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