Kiev, Ukraine – The Ukrainian military appeared to be preparing a long-awaited major assault on the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Monday, warning civilians to leave as troops tightened their ring around the city amid heavy fighting.
Additional escape lanes have been put in place for cars displaying white flags, said Andriy Lysenko, an army spokesman. The Donetsk city government published the corridor routes on its web page and noted: “As practice shows, these messages are broadcast before the start of active combat operations.
Lysenko also announced that Ukrainian troops had captured the town of Yasynuvata, which is home to a key rail control center between Donetsk and Luhansk.
The army almost surrounded the two major cities, where the rebels declared “people’s republics”. Intense fighting was reported on Monday in the Donetsk suburb of Marinka. Members of a volunteer militia called the Azov Battalion posted photos on Facebook claiming to show them advancing into Donetsk with the Shakhtarsk Battalion, but mapping technology suggests the photos were taken in Marinka.
Residents intended to stay in crowded Donetsk grocery stores to stock up, but the streets were otherwise empty. Two performing dolphins in an entertainment complex were transferred to a facility in the city of Kharkiv.
As a sign of Russia’s intense focus on developments, its foreign ministry on Monday accused Ukraine of moving Tochka-U ballistic missile systems and Smerch and Uragan rocket launchers to Donetsk, implying that they could soon be used against the densely populated regional capital. U.S. officials, in turn, have said Russia is shipping similar heavy rocket systems to rebels across the border, which Moscow denies. Ukraine has denied owning ballistic missiles, claiming they were destroyed in the 1990s.
In recent days, there have been growing calls in Moscow for the Kremlin to step up its support for rebels in Ukraine as they continue to lose territory due to a slow but relentless military advance.
Ukraine and the West have expressed concern over an apparent Russian build-up along the border. On Monday, the Russian Air Force announced military exercises involving more than 100 planes, including bombers, fighters and helicopters. The Interfax news agency said the exercises will include missile firing exercises.
There were also indications that all was not in Ukraine’s direction on the battlefield.
Russian officials said hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers entered Russia overnight Sunday, although 180 returned on Monday.
The ITAR-TASS news agency said many were from the 72nd Mechanized Brigade, which is positioned at the border and has suffered heavy artillery and mortar fire. He quoted the brigade commander as saying the troops were exhausted after being without supplies for two weeks.
Ukrainian military officials confirmed that some soldiers had entered Russia. But they did not shed light on possible motivations or indicate whether the troops should return to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a shooting near the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 forced a team of Netherlands-led experts to delay work on Monday. After waiting more than four hours, the 100-member team headed to one of the two sites to search for human remains and property. The delay led the experts to forgo a visit to the second site. They found only personal items, no body part, during their search.
Birnbaum reported from Moscow. Alex Ryabchyn contributed to this report.