Civilians told to flee while they still can

Deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk urged people in the Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as parts of the Kharkiv region, to flee “while they still had the chance”. And she reiterated her warning that Ukraine would not “be able to help” if Russia invades.

Ms Vereshchuk said local leaders were trying to organise an evacuation ahead of any attack. Speaking on her Telegram channel, she said: “It has to be done now because later people will be under fire and face the threat of death.”

“There is nothing they will be able to do about it, nor will we be able to help.”

The Ukrainian military echoed her chilling warning as huge numbers of Kremlin artillery were seen “regrouping and conducting reconnaissance” for a fresh onslaught in the Donbas.

Some 24,000 soldiers are believed to have fled Kyiv – but are now re-arming in Belarus and western Russia.

Experts believe they will try to surround Ukrainian forces in a bid to take control of the entire Donbas region.

But military strategists said they would have their work cut out. Tracey German, at King’s College London, explained: “This is a big territory to control, and I think we shouldn’t underestimate the geographical complexities.”

Towns now in Russia’s sights have already experienced years of war since Kremlin-backed separatists first seized large parts of Donbas in 2014. The next big target is Slovyansk, a city of 125,000.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War said if Ukraine was able to hold on to Slovyansk, Russia’s campaign “will likely fail”. But Putin’s forces are already bombarding towns further to the east. And they were still trying to take full control of besieged port city Mariupol.

Russian forces also continued to shell Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. But Ukrainian forces said they have taken back Osokorivka in the south.

President Volodymyr Zelensky accused the Russians of committing the worst crimes since the Second World War, and called for those responsible to be tried as the Nazis were in Nuremberg.

He said: “The Russian military searched for and purposefully killed anyone who served our country. They killed entire families, adults and children, and they tried to burn the bodies.”

Nato yesterday pledged more support but warned the war may last for years.

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said allies were trying to shorten the conflict by “imposing heavy costs” on Russia through sanctions. But he said: “As long as war continues, there will be risk for escalation beyond Ukraine and that is what Nato is focused on.”

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