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Luhansk residents told to evacuate as Russia moves focus to east Ukraine

A residential building damaged by a military strike in Lysychansk, Luhansk.
A residential building damaged by a military strike in Lysychansk, Luhansk, in late March. Photograph: State Emergency Service Of Ukraine/Reuters

Residents remaining in eastern Ukraine’s embattled region of Luhansk must evacuate, the governor has said as shelling intensifies and Russia bolsters its forces.

Ukraine has been warning that Moscow is withdrawing from areas to the north of Kyiv in order to focus its offensive military operations on the country’s east. Moscow, which initially justified its invasion by claiming to need to protect Russian-speaking civilians in the self-proclaimed republics in Donbas, has confirmed the change in strategy.

Governor Serhiy Gaidai said about 30% of residents had stayed in the area’s cities and villages despite being asked to leave. “They [Russia] are amassing forces for an offensive and we see the number of shellings has increased,” Gaidai told public television.

The town of Sievierodonetsk is the temporary headquarters of the regional authorities as Luhansk city has been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

Russian operations continue to focus on the south-eastern parts of the country, targeting Donbas, Mariupol and Mykolaiv, the UK’s Ministry of Defence has said.

The attacks are “supported by continued cruise missile launches into Ukraine by Russian naval forces”, according to its latest intelligence update. It said it expected Russian air activity “to increase in the south and east of Ukraine in support of this activity” but that forces had failed to establish a land corridor between Crimea and Donbas.

With Russia’s offensive refocused, the US has warned that Moscow likely plans to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers in eastern Ukraine. “At this juncture we believe Russia is revising its war aims” to concentrate on “eastern and parts of southern Ukraine rather than target most of the territory,” President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said earlier this week.

Calls for residents to evacuate Luhansk follow a missile strike on a railway station in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine on Friday. The attack on Kramatorsk station killed at least 50 people, including five children, who were waiting to evacuate. Blaming Russia for the attack, Volodymyr Zelenskiy labelled the strike a war crime and said it must be included at any future tribunal over the invasion. Russia has denied responsibility.

Zelenskiy said he expected “a firm, global response”. “Like the massacre in Bucha, like many other Russian war crimes, the missile strike on Kramatorsk must be one of the charges at the tribunal, which is bound to happen,” he said on Friday night.

The Tochka-U rocket landed outside the main station building where 4,000 people were waiting to be evacuated on Friday, wounding 87 people in addition to the dozens killed. Many have lost limbs and are in a critical condition, overwhelming the city’s hospital. The authorities had urged people to leave before a Russian military assault expected from next week.

After the strike, the Ukrainian leader once again called on allies to supply Ukraine with more weapons, and for greater sanctions to be imposed on Russia. “The pressure on Russia must be increased. It is necessary to introduce a full energy embargo – on oil, on gas. It is energy exports that provide the lion’s share of Russia’s profits. Russian banks must also be completely disconnected from the global financial system.”

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of Donetsk oblast, accused Russia of carrying out the attack in order to “sow panic and fear” and to kill as many civilians as possible. “The enemy knew that this is a city, that this is a crowd of people, this is a railway station,” he said.

Amid the mounting atrocities emerging from the invasion, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, Olga Stefanishyna, has said she expects her country to be granted EU candidate country status in June. She said her country was “ready to move fast” with its application to become a member of the bloc. Stefanishyna’s remarks come a day after the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, pledged to offer a speedy response to Ukraine’s attempt to join the union, telling Zelenskiy she thought it would be “a matter of weeks”.

Ten humanitarian corridors to evacuate people from embattled areas across the country had been agreed for Saturday, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said. She said the planned corridors included one for people evacuating by private transport from the besieged city of Mariupol, which has been under constant fire since 24 February. Over the weeks, several attempts to evacuate the approximately 150,000 civilians remaining in Mariupol and bring in vital provisions have ended in failure. Remaining residents face a humanitarian catastrophe, cut off from supplies of water, food and power.

• This article was amended on 11 April 2022 because an earlier version referred to the residents in eastern Ukraine’s embattled city of Luhansk being urged to evacuate. That should have referred to eastern Ukraine’s region of Luhansk. The city of Luhansk has been controlled by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

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