Ukraine says 400,000 citizens have been forcibly taken to Russia

Ukraine accused Moscow on Thursday of forcibly taking hundreds of thousands of civilians from shattered Ukrainian cities to Russia, while the Kremlin has said the people relocated from Ukraine wanted to go to Russia.

Kremlin says the relocated people wanted to go to Russia

Locals clean up debris from a cultural centre destroyed by shelling, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine enters its second month, in the village of Byshiv outside Kyiv on Thursday. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Ukraine accused Moscow on Thursday of forcibly taking hundreds of thousands of civilians from shattered Ukrainian cities to Russia, where some may be used as "hostages" to pressure Kyiv to give up.

Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine's ombudsperson, said 402,000 people, including 84,000 children, have been taken against their will to Russia, and some have reported shortages of food and water there. 

The Kremlin gave nearly identical numbers for those who have been relocated, but it said they wanted to go to Russia. The country's rebel-controlled eastern regions, for example, are predominantly Russian-speaking, and many people there have supported close ties to Moscow.

A month into the invasion, meanwhile, the two sides traded heavy blows in what has become a devastating war of attrition. Ukraine's navy said it sank the Orsk, a large landing ship near the port city of Berdyansk that had been used to supply Russian forces with armoured vehicles. Russia claimed to have taken the eastern town of Izyum after fierce fighting.

People stand in a queue during the distribution of humanitarian aid near a damaged block of flats in Mariupol on Thursday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

At an emergency NATO summit in Brussels, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with the Western allies via video for planes, tanks, rockets, air defence systems and other weapons, saying his country is "defending our common values." U.S President Joe Biden, in Europe for a series of summits, gave assurances more aid is on its way, though it appeared unlikely the West would give Zelensky everything he wanted, for fear of triggering a much wider war.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance's leaders agreed to send equipment to help protect Ukraine against chemical attack. Around the capital, Kyiv, and other areas, Ukrainian defenders appear to have fought Moscow's ground troops to a stalemate, raising fears that a frustrated Russian President Vladimir Putin will resort to chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Competing accounts of relocations

Kyiv and Moscow gave conflicting accounts, meanwhile, about the people being relocated to Russia and whether they were being moved willingly. 

Russian Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev on Thursday said the roughly 400,000 people taken to Russia since the start of the military action were evacuated from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow separatists have been fighting for control for nearly eight years.

Russian authorities said they are providing accommodations and dispensing payments to the evacuees.

But Donetsk Region Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said that "people are being forcibly moved into the territory of the aggressor state." Denisova said those removed by Russian troops included a 92-year-old woman in Mariupol who was forced to go to Taganrog in southern Russia.

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Ukrainian officials said the Russians are taking Ukrainians' passports and moving them to "filtration camps" in Ukraine's separatist-controlled east before sending them to various distant, economically depressed areas in Russia. 

Among those taken, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry charged, were 6,000 residents from the devastated port city of Mariupol. Russian troops are confiscating identity documents from an additional 15,000 people in a section of Mariupol under Russian control, the ministry said. 

Some could be sent as far as the Pacific Ocean island of Sakhalin, Ukrainian intelligence said, and are being offered jobs on condition they don't leave for two years. The ministry said the Russians intend to "use them as hostages and put more political pressure on Ukraine."

People wait in a lineup for supplies near an apartment building damaged during Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Mariupol on Thursday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Kyrylenko said Mariupol's residents had been long deprived of information and that the Russians feed them false claims about Ukraine's defeats to persuade them to move to Russia. 

"Russian lies may influence those who have been under the siege," he said.

As for the naval attack in Berdyansk, Ukraine claimed two more ships were damaged and a 2,700-tonne fuel tank was destroyed when the Orsk was sunk, causing a fire that spread to nearby ammunition supplies.