An interior view shows a kindergarten, which according to Ukraine's military officials was damaged by shelling, in Stanytsia Luhanska in the Luhansk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released February 17, 2022. Press Service of the Joint Forces Ope
An interior view shows a kindergarten, which according to Ukraine's military officials was damaged by shelling, in Stanytsia Luhanska in the Luhansk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released February 17, 2022. Press Service of the Joint Forces Operation/Handout via REUTERS . Reuters / JOINT FORCES OPERATION

Russian-backed separatists packed civilians onto buses out of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine on Friday, a shock turn in a conflict the West fears is part of a plan by Moscow to create a pretext for an attack on its neighbour.

Warning sirens blared in Donetsk after it and the other self-proclaimed "People's Republic", Luhansk, announced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people to Russia, with women, children and the elderly going first.

Without providing evidence, Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader in Donetsk, accused Ukraine of preparing to attack the two regions soon - an accusation Kyiv said was false.

"There are no orders to liberate our territories by force," said Ukraine's top security official, Oleksiy Danilov.

Hours after the evacuation announcement, a jeep exploded outside a rebel government building in the city of Donetsk, capital of the region of the same name. Reuters journalists saw the vehicle surrounded by shrapnel, a wheel thrown away by the blast.

Russian media said it belonged to a separatist official.

Most of the several million civilians in the two rebel-held areas are Russian speakers, many already granted citizenship by Moscow.

Within hours of the announcement, families assembled to board buses at an evacuation point in Donetsk, where authorities said 700,000 people would leave.

One weeping woman embraced her teenage children.

Irina Lysanova, 22, just back from a trip to Russia, said she was packing to return with her pensioner mother: "Mama is a panicker," she said. "Dad is sending us away."

Her father, Konstantin, 62, was not going.

"This is my motherland and the land is ours. I will stay and put out the fires," he said.

The evacuation started after the simmering eastern Ukraine conflict zone saw what sources described as the most intense artillery bombardment for years on Friday.

Ukraine's government and the separatists traded blame.

Western countries have said they think the shelling, which began on Thursday and intensified in its second day, could be part of an attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin's government to create a pretext to justify an attack on Ukraine.

Russia says it has no such intention and accuses the West of irresponsible fear-mongering.

There were no signs of panic on Friday evening in Donetsk.

"I think everything will blow over in a few days," said one man Ilya, in his 20s, waiting in line to withdraw cash from an ATM.

Ukraine was the most painful loss for Russia of the 14 former republics under its control prior to the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. Putin, who called the break-up the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the last century, has devoted his rule to restoring Russia as a global power and defying the West.

The Russian-backed rebels seized a swathe of eastern Ukraine in 2014, the same year that Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea region. Kyiv says that more than 14,000 people have since died in the conflict in the east.

As the Kremlin shows off its military capacity on several fronts, the Russian president was to supervise exercises of its strategic nuclear missile forces in person on Saturday.


With war fears spooking markets and Europe engulfed in a diplomatic crisis, Russia said this week it had started withdrawing troops from the border near Ukraine after huge military drills.

But the United States said it had instead ramped up the force, menacing its neighbour, to between 169,000-190,000 troops, from 100,000 at the end of January.

"We see additional forces going to the border including leading edge forces," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Munich Security Conference.

The Kremlin has tens of thousands of troops staging exercises in Belarus, north of Ukraine, that are due to end on Sunday. Belarus' Russian-backed leader, Alexander Lukashenko, met Putin on Friday, saying beforehand the soldiers could stay as long as needed.

Western countries fear a conflict on a scale unseen in Europe at least since the Yugoslav and Chechen wars of the 1990s, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to flee.

"This is the most significant military mobilisation in Europe since the Second World War," U.S. ambassador Michael Carpenter told a meeting at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.


A diplomatic source with years of experience of the conflict described Friday's shelling in east Ukraine as the most intense since major combat there ended with a 2015 ceasefire. "They are shooting - everyone and everything," said the source.

The evacuation piled further pressure on Russia's rouble currency and other assets.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said she did not think a fully-fledged invasion was the most likely scenario but that Russia could carry out a coup in Ukraine, attack critical infrastructure or instigate violence it would blame on Kyiv.

The Ukrainian government also said a full-scale invasion was unlikely.

Putin, whose nation has been under sanctions since 2014, said Western countries would probably find a reason to impose more whatever Russia did.

Moscow is making security demands that include a promise to bar Ukraine from joining the U.S.-European military alliance NATO. Since toppling a pro-Russian president in 2014, Ukraine has become closer politically to the West, staged joint military exercises with NATO and taken delivery of weapons including U.S. Javelin anti-tank missiles and Turkish drones.

Putin says Ukraine's growing ties with the alliance could make it a launchpad for missiles targeting Russia.