A car bomb in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk, which exploded shortly after separatist leaders there announced a mass evacuation to Russia, has raised fears that a critical moment has been reached in Kremlin ‘false flag operations’ that could be used to justify military action.
Russian media claimed the explosion took place in the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) outside an official building. Its leader, Denis Pushilin, earlier the local population was being taken to safety inside Russia because of shelling by Ukrainian forces. Warning sirens blared in the city.
An explosive device was placed, according to Russian reports, in the car of the separatist republic’s police chief. It did not cause any casualties.
Moscow claimed on Thursday that charged that Ukraine has been “ exterminating the civilian population of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk” over a prolonged period and mounting civilian casualties amounted to “genocide of the Russian-speaking population of Donbas.”
Wearing military fatigues rather than his customary blue civilian suit, Mr Pushilin claimed that the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, would be ordering an offensive in the Donbas in the very near future.
Mr Pushilin maintained that Ukrainian forces were already in place to carry out the operation and that there have been movements of armour and artillery. His administration was organising a “mass, centralised departure” of the population to the Russian Federation, adding that “women, children and elderly people are subject to evacuation first.” Rostov, he said, would be the initial destination.
The separatist claims were immediately dismissed by Western and Ukrainian officials as part of a build-up of pretexts by the Russians to justify military action. Earlier this month the separatists had claimed that British Special Forces and Polish mercenaries were detected in the Donbas plotting sabotage. On Thursday a spate of missile and artillery attacks at the border were described by the West as Russian ‘ false flag operations’.
Kiev denied that any military action has been planned for the Donbas or that it was targeting a chemical facility in the area.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said: We categorically refute Russian disinformation reports on Ukraine’s alleged offensive operations or acts of sabotage in chemical production facilities. Ukraine does not conduct or plan any such actions in the Donbas. We are fully committed to diplomatic conflict resolution only.”
A senior Western security official said: “This may be part of an intensifying picture of developments that Russia might seek to use as a pretext for military action. We have anticipated this, and we have said we are in a most dangerous phase now.”
The separatist leadership has claimed that the evacuation from Donetsk has been greed with Russian authorities. But Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “I do not know what is happening over there, I do not possess such information.”
Monitors from the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) did not report any build-up of forces. But they charted 35 ceasefire violations in a space of the last 24 hours.
Local people living in the area bordering Donetsk and the second breakaway republic, Luhansk, told The Independent that they had not noticed arrival of new Ukrainian troops or equipment. However, residents in a number of areas said there has been a definite increase in the volume of artillery rounds.
Elena Babenko, a schoolteacher in Luhnask Oblast, said: “We are hearing more heavy firing now than before — this is something new, this is something we haven’t heard for many months. Also the [mobile] phone signal disappeared for a long time. With all that is going on, people are very worried.”