Earlier, local media reported that the Ukrainian military had left the frontline Lugansk region city on Friday, taking their heavy military equipment with them.
Ukrainian nationalist forces have shelled residential areas in the city of Starobelsk using heavy Grad artillery, killing civilians, the Russian Defence Ministry has reported.
“At 10:30 am on the 26th of February, Ukrainian nationalists shelled residential areas of the city of Starobelsk using Grad multiple launch rocket systems. The attack resulted in a fire breaking out in the city; there is destruction of residential buildings; there are civilian casualties,” the Ministry said.
The MoD said further that it has reliable information that Ukrainian nationalist formations plan similar provocations in the towns of Kramatorsk and Slavyansk.
Ultra-nationalist and neo-Nazi formations, operating alongside the Ukrainian regular army, are particularly active in eastern Ukraine, and have played a key role in the shelling of civilian and military targets in the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, in violation of the 2015 Minsk Agreements aimed at ending the Ukrainian civil war, over the past 7+ years.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the servicemen of the Ukrainian armed forces to seize power. “Do not allow neo-Nazis and Bandera supporters to use your children, your wives, and elderly people as human shields. Take power into your own hands. It seems that it will be easier for us to come to an agreement with this gang of junkies and neo-Nazis, who settled in Kiev and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage,” Putin said.
On Thursday morning, Russian, Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic forces launched what Putin referred to as a “special military operation” aimed at “demilitarising and denazifying” Ukraine. The move came after a continued escalation of the conflict in the Donbass, notwithstanding Russia’s move to recognise the sovereignty of the DPR and LPR last Monday.
Ukraine’s government and its sponsors in the US and its NATO allies condemned the Russian-led operation as an “act of aggression” and “invasion,” and the latter slapped Moscow with new sanctions. The US and NATO have also vowed to continue ramping up the provision of military assistance to Kiev, with US President Joe Biden signing an order to give the country an additional $600 million in military assistance on Friday.
The Russian-led military operation is the culmination of a crisis which began in February 2014, when Ukraine’s government was overthrown in a US and EU-backed coup by forces seeking to integrate the Eastern European country into the EU and NATO.