Ukrainians in the occupied southern region of Kherson are being forced from their homes, the Ukrainian military and activists warned on Tuesday, as local officials installed by Russia expanded the area from which civilians have been ordered to leave and Moscow’s troops rushed to fortify defensive positions.
Ahead of a possible battle for control of the key region, the Ukrainian military said that the widening calls by occupation officials for people to leave the area were part of a campaign to terrorize and forcibly deport tens of thousands of civilians from the west bank of the Dnipro River.
Ukrainian troops have been pushing to dislodge Russian forces entrenched around the city of Kherson, on the western bank of the river. Kherson is a shipbuilding city about 340 miles from the capital of Kyiv. The city is important for gaining access to the Black Sea and Crimea, and also provides a path to Ukraine’s southern coastline for invading Russian forces. Its loss would deal both a strategic and psychological blow to Russia.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Ukrainian military high command said that Russian forces had “set up technical fortifications” and mines or explosives around civilian housing in the Kherson region, most likely to use as defensive positions for a looming battle.
The Ukrainian claims could not be independently verified. But residents in Kherson who were contacted by phone, and accounts of those who have fled to Ukrainian-controlled territory, have described intimidation by Russian forces and local officials as Ukrainian troops advance in the south.
“They intimidate people and make them evacuate,” a Kherson resident named Tetiana, 60, said in a text message on Tuesday, asking that her surname not be used for her safety. She said she has refused to leave her apartment in0 Kherson despite pressure from officials to “go to the so called ‘safe regions of Russia.’”
Then, she added, “Russian soldiers take the houses of those who left and loot everything.”
A little over a week ago, Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-appointed governor of Kherson, said tens of thousands of people should evacuate the regional capital. Just six days later, he claimed that effort was complete, although Ukrainian officials said that only a few thousand people had left, most of them loyal to Russia. Mr. Saldo also issued a pointed warning that all those who remain could be considered hostile.
On Tuesday, Mr. Saldo expanded the area from which civilians should leave to all towns, villages and cities within 10 miles of the river, possibly indicating the line Russia would defend to try to keep hold of both the city of Kherson and the critically important dam in Kakhovka, about 40 miles upriver to the northeast, which feeds fresh water to Crimea.
Beyond calling for the “evacuation” of everyone within 10 miles of the river on the western bank, Russian-allied officials on Tuesday night said the order would include the entire district around the dam, including those living on the eastern side of the Dnipro.
Inside the city of Kherson, residents said the situation grew more dire by the day. A woman named Katerina, 38, wrote in a text message over the weekend that they could hear “fighting on the outskirts of the city.”
“The city is empty,” she wrote. “As if it were dying. But we are alive. We keep on and wait. To meet the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”