KYIV (AFP, REUTERS) - Russian troops are preparing for a big attack in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine, the local governor Sergiy Gaiday said on Telegram on Monday (April 4), urging a mass evacuation.
“We see that equipment is coming from different directions, they are bringing manpower, they are bringing fuel,” Gaiday said in a video statement.
“We understand that they are preparing for a full-scale big breakthrough,” he added.
Gaiday urged residents to leave the region as soon as possible.
“Please don’t wait for your homes to be bombed,” he said in a separate video.
“Do not hesitate,” he added, specifying that 1,000 people had been evacuated on Monday.
A senior Pentagon official said Russia has removed about two-thirds of the troops it had around Kyiv – who were mostly sent back to Belarus with plans to redeploy elsewhere in Ukraine.
“The bombardments are becoming ever denser. Last night there was an attempt to break through at Rubizhne (near Luhansk). (But) our defenders repulsed and put several tanks out of action – there were dozens of (Russian soldiers’) corpses, Gaiday said.
“Yesterday, sadly, two volunteers were killed in a mine or mortar explosion,” he went on, adding “a church was bombed.”
The mayor of Borova, Oleksandr Tertyshnyy, whose town is midway between Luhansk and the main eastern city of Kharkiv, said local authorities “had to take a decision to evacuate the population... for citizens’ security. Those who can leave in their own vehicle are encouraged to do so,” he said on Facebook.
Oleksy Arestovitch, a Ukraine presidential adviser, added that “the enemy is in the process of regrouping its forces with the intention of pursuing the offensive... in the region of Mariupol and Kharkiv.
“The enemy will seek to encircle our troops... and finish off Mariupol” – already largely destroyed after weeks under siege.
“But we are all convinced they will not succeed in doing so,” he added.
The US has made similar assessments. President Joe Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday Russia probably plans to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers in eastern Ukraine.
"At this juncture we believe Russia is revising its war aims" to focus on "eastern and parts of southern Ukraine rather than target most of the territory", Sullivan told reporters at the White House.
The goal was likely to "surround and overwhelm" Ukrainian forces in the region, he said. "Russia could then use any tactical success it achieves to propagate a narrative of progress and mask ... prior military failure."
Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion, which began on Feb 24, is Europe's bloodiest since World War Two. Russia calls it a "special military operation" aimed at protecting civilians.
Sullivan said the Biden administration would announce fresh military assistance for Ukraine in the coming days. He said further sanctions against Russian energy are on the table in talks with European allies.
Sullivan said the next phase may be protracted with Russian troops outnumbering Ukraine's. Moscow would likely seek to control a far broader swathe of eastern Ukraine than separatists controlled prior to the invasion, he said.
In the south, Russia will likely seek to hold the city of Kherson to control the flow of water to Crimea, which it occupied in 2014. He said the Kremlin was expected to launch further air and missile strikes across the rest of the country.
Biden on Monday accused Putin of war crimes and called for a trial, adding to the global outcry over civilian killings in Bucha, a town recaptured by Ukrainian troops as Russian forces regrouped.
On Sunday, Ukrainian prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said 410 civilian bodies had been recovered in the wider Kyiv region after Russian troops pulled back.
In Bucha, the local mayor said 280 people were buried in mass graves because they could not be buried in cemeteries that were within firing range. AFP on Saturday saw the bodies of at least 22 people in civilian clothes on a single street in Bucha.
Russia categorically denied murdering civilians, including in Bucha. UN envoy Vasily Nebenzya promised Russia would present "empirical evidence" to the Security Council that its forces had not been killing civilians.
"We have empirical evidence to support this," Nebenzya said at a press conference. "We intend to submit them to the Security Council as soon as possible so that the international community is not misled by the false plot of Kyiv and its Western sponsors."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday described as "genocide" the killings in Bucha. "These are war crimes and it will be recognised by the world as genocide," Zelensky said during a visit to Bucha, where bodies were discovered strewn throughout the town after it was reclaimed by Kyiv's army.
"Every day, when our fighters enter and retake territory, you see what's been happening," the Ukrainian leader told reporters, wearing a bullet-proof vest and accompanied by military personnel.
"You stand here today and see what happened. We know that thousands of people have been killed and tortured with extremities cut off, women raped, children killed," he said. "It's genocide."