Ukrainian civilians wait at a relief center for displaced people in Irpin, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Officials in the Donetsk region called for 350,000 civilians to evacuate in anticipation of increased Russian attacks. Photo by Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE
July 6 (UPI) -- Leaders in Ukraine's Donbas region called Wednesday for 350,000 civilians to evacuate to safety ahead of an expected Russian military offensive.
The government head of the Donetsk region -- which is one of two that make up the Donbas -- called for the evacuations as an increased Russian assault is expected after Moscow claimed victory in the Luhansk province, which is the other half of the Donbas.
Luhansk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said the evacuations would allow Ukrainian forces to concentrate on defending the region against intensified attacks.
"The destiny of the whole country will be decided by the Donetsk region," Kyrylenko said, according to The Guardian. "Once there are less people, we will be able to concentrate more on our enemy and perform our main tasks."
Sloviansk, a Donetsk city in the Kramatorsk district, faced heavy shelling from Russian troops on Wednesday.
"Russian forces from the eastern and western groups of forces are likely now around [10 miles] north from the town of Sloviansk," the British Defense Ministry, which has monitored the fighting from the start, said in a statement.
Smoke rises from shelling in Lysychansk, Ukraine, during heavy fighting on June 18. Russia claimed victory in the city last weekend and is moving quickly to capture other parts of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine. Photo by Oleksandr Ratushniak/EPA-EFE
"With the town also under threat from the central and southern groups of forces, there is a realistic possibility that the battle for Sloviansk will be the next key contest in the struggle for the Donbas."
Russia has found slow but consistent military success since it refocused forces and attacks in eastern Ukraine in April. Pro-Russia separatists have populated the Donbas for years and opposed the central government in Kyiv.
Ukrainian military officials say Russia controls about 55% of the Donetsk region, but its pace may be quickening after its victory in Lysychansk last weekend and Severodonetsk a couple weeks ago. Both were key Ukrainian holdouts in the Donbas region.
"Those who saw [what happened in Severodonetsk or Lysychansk] left a long time ago," Vadym Liakh, head of the Slovyansk military-civilian administration, said, according to CNN.
"Now there are approximately 23,000 residents of Slovyansk [out of around 100,000] which remain in the city. The number of people willing to leave has increased. We are working on evacuation in two directions: to Lviv, Dnipro or Rivne."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said an air alert sounded throughout Tuesday night and early Wednesday, causing unease among civilians.