About 2,500 people have been evacuated in Russia’s Belgorod region after days of shelling and Ukrainian incursions, according to the local governor, pointing to the rapid transformation of parts of the country’s western border into a war zone.
“The conditions are quite difficult,” Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said in a message on the Telegram messaging app on Friday, adding that the evacuated residents were in temporary shelters at sports centers before being transported to more interior regions of Russia.
Mr Gladkov said in later articles that four people in the Belgorod region were killed by artillery shells on Friday, including two women who died after their car was hit near the town of Shebekino, about 10 km away. from the Ukrainian border. Video released by Russian military correspondents claiming to capture the aftermath showed a cloud of smoke rising near a column of passenger cars. This could not be independently verified.
The number of evacuees could not be confirmed, but Belgorod residents who traveled to Shebekino on Thursday described the farming community of 40,000 as a ghost town. They said many residents left without waiting for an official evacuation after taking refuge in basements during hours of shelling.
Anxiety has been mounting in the Belgorod region since two paramilitary groups crossed the border last week and briefly detained two villages in another part of the region.
The groups, Free Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps, claimed in separate videos on Friday that they were fighting on the outskirts of Shebekino for the second day. The Russian authorities had indicated Thursday that the insurgents had been turned back at the border. On Friday, spokesmen for the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Free Russian Legion declined to comment on the Shebekino raid beyond the continuation of the operation.
Both groups, which operate from Ukraine and are made up of anti-Kremlin Russian citizens, said they do not attack civilians and only target security installations.
Witnesses described extensive damage in the city on Thursday, including to residential buildings. Video footage verified by The New York Times shows a burning building in the city.
The Russian Volunteer Corps said on Thursday it hit the Shebekino police station with a Soviet-designed Grad multiple rocket launcher, an artillery weapon designed to cover a wide area with explosives.
Michael Schwirtz contributed report.