Pinoys begin to leave Ukraine as shellfire rocks front line

The first group of Filipino returnees from Ukraine arrived in Manila on Friday as shellfire echoed across Eastern Europe as the military and Moscow-backed separatists accused each other of provocations and US warnings of an imminent Russian invasion fueled international tension.

“The Philippine government, through the Philippine Embassy in Warsaw, has provided financial assistance to the six Filipinos who have voluntarily requested to be repatriated to the country,” the foreign ministry said.

Four of the returnees came from Kyiv while the other two flew from Lviv.

“The Philippine Embassy in Warsaw, which is in active coordination with its Honorary Consulate General of the Philippines in Kyiv, is also cooperating closely with the Consulate General of the Philippines in Istanbul to facilitate the repatriation,” the FDFA said.

“This is to ensure government assistance is available to the group at all transit points,” he added.

On Friday, an AFP reporter near the frontline between government forces and rebel-held territory in the Lugansk region heard the thud of explosions and saw damaged civilian buildings.

All eyes were on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move as Moscow announced it would oversee a weekend exercise of “strategic forces” – ballistic and cruise missiles.

Russia has demanded that the United States withdraw all forces from NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe and increase pressure on Ukraine.

US President Joe Biden is due to hold video talks with Western allies, including the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany and NATO, later Friday to discuss the crisis .

On Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the United Nations that Washington had intelligence showing Moscow could order an invasion in the “coming days”.

Russia has denied having such a plan and claims to have started withdrawing some of the 149,000 troops Ukraine now says are on its borders.

But Putin has done nothing to calm tensions, ordering the missile drills even amid reports of increased shelling by Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Visiting Poland, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Washington was seeing “more” Russian forces entering the Ukrainian border region despite announcements from Moscow.

On Thursday, a shell ripped a hole in the wall of a kindergarten located in government-controlled territory near the front line in the Ukrainian village of Stanytsia Luganska.

The 20 children and 18 adults inside escaped serious injury, but the attack sparked international howls of protest.

“The children were having breakfast when it hit,” Natalia Slesareva, a school laundry worker, told AFP.

“It hit the gym. After breakfast, the children had gym lessons. So, another 15 minutes, and everything could have been much, much worse.

On Friday, part of the village remained without electricity. Konstantin Reutsky, director of the aid agency Vostok SOS, told AFP that houses and a store were damaged.

Ukraine’s joint command center said the rebels violated the ceasefire 20 times between midnight and 9 a.m. Friday, while separatist groups in Donetsk and Lugansk said the army fired 27 times.

Leaders of the wealthy Group of Seven nations will hold a virtual conference next Thursday with the Ukraine crisis high on the agenda, Germany, which holds the group’s rotating presidency, said on Friday.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Moscow needed to show “serious steps towards de-escalation”.

“With an unprecedented deployment of troops to the border with Ukraine and the demands of the Cold War, Russia is challenging the fundamentals of the European peace order,” Baerbock said.

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