By Pavel Polityuk and Jonathan Landay
KYIV/MYKOLAIV, Ukraine (Reuters) -Russia told civilians on Tuesday to leave an area along the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in the Ukrainian province of Kherson, a major extension of an evacuation order that Kyiv says amounts to the forced depopulation of occupied territory.
Russia had previously ordered civilians out of a pocket it controls on the west bank of the river, where Ukrainian forces have been advancing for weeks to capture the city of Kherson in what would be a strategic prize in the eight-month-long war.
Russian-installed officials said on Tuesday they were extending that order to a 15-km (9-mile) buffer zone along the east bank too. Ukraine says the evacuations include forced deportations from occupied territory, a war crime.
Russia, which claims to have annexed parts of Kherson region, says it is taking civilians to safety because of the risk Ukraine might use unconventional weapons.
“Due to the possibility of the use of prohibited methods of war by the Ukrainian regime, as well as information that Kyiv is preparing a massive missile strike on the Kakhovka hydroelectric station, there is an immediate danger of the Kherson region being flooded,” Vladimir Saldo, Russian-installed head of occupied Kherson province, said in a video message.
“The decision (to expand the evacuation zone) will make it possible to create a layered defence in order to repel Ukrainian attacks and protect civilians,” he said.
Russian-installed authorities in the Kherson region also said an obligatory evacuation of Kakhovka district, close to the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric station, was to begin on Nov. 6.
Moscow has accused Kyiv of planning to use a so-called “dirty bomb” to spread radiation, or to blow up a dam to flood towns and villages in Kherson province. Kyiv says accusations it would use such tactics on its own territory are absurd, but that Russia might be planning such actions itself to blame Ukraine.
The mouth of the Dnipro has become one of the most consequential frontlines eight months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Saldo identified seven towns on the east bank that would now be evacuated, comprising the main populated settlements along that stretch of the river.
‘WHY SHOULD I LEAVE?’
In the city of Kherson on Tuesday streets were virtually empty, with most shops and businesses shuttered. A handful of people at a jetty boarded a ferry to cross to the east bank of the Dnipro, though a few men were still fishing peacefully, apparently indifferent to the distant rumble of artillery fire.
Some residents remained defiant, despite the order to leave.
“Why should I leave? … What for? I will stay here to the very end,” said Ekaterina, a shopkeeper, referring to the house she said her ancestors had built “with their own hands”.
Russian forces swept into Ukraine in February in what Moscow calls a “special military operation” to eliminate dangerous nationalists and protect Russian-speakers. Kyiv calls Moscow’s military action an unprovoked imperialist land grab.
Thousands of Russian men have fled abroad to escape conscription to a conflict which has killed thousands, displaced millions and reopened Cold War-era divisions. The European Union accused Moscow on Tuesday of illegally conscripting men in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Russia fired missiles at Ukrainian cities including the capital Kyiv in what President Vladimir Putin called retaliation for an attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet over the weekend. Ukraine said it shot most of those missiles down, but some had hit power stations, knocking out electricity and water supplies.
The United States on Tuesday denounced the attacks, saying about 100 missiles had been fired on Monday and Tuesday.
“With temperatures dropping, these Russian attacks aimed at exacerbating human suffering are particularly heinous,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters at a daily briefing. Russia denies targeting civilians.
Putin has suspended Russia’s cooperation with a programme backed by Turkey and the United Nations to escort cargo ships carrying grain out of the war zone.
The three-month-old undertaking had ended a de facto Russian blockade of Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest grain producers, and averted a global food crisis.
Putin told Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in a call on Tuesday that Russia could consider resuming the deal only after completion of an investigation into drone attacks on a Crimean port, which Moscow has already blamed on Ukraine.
Despite Russia’s suspension of its participation in the grain deal, no blockade has been restored so far. Three vessels left Ukrainian ports on Tuesday morning after 12 ships set out on Monday.
The programme’s administrators said Tuesday’s shipments had been agreed by Ukrainian, Turkish and U.N. delegations and that Moscow had been informed, an apparent sign of a willingness to proceed without Russian cooperation.
Just north of Kherson, Russia fired four missiles into the Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv overnight, demolishing half an apartment building. Reuters saw rescue workers recover the body of an elderly woman from the rubble.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Gareth Jones and Grant McCool; Editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich)