Tears and hugs for Russians called up to fight in Ukraine

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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Russia escalated its military and political campaign Thursday to seize Ukrainian territory, rally Russian army reservists for battle, prepare for votes on annexation of occupied territories and launch new deadly attacks.

A day after President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization to bolster his troops in Ukraine, dramatic scenes of weeping families saying goodbye to men leaving military mobilization centers in Russia emerged on social media.

Video on Twitter from the eastern Siberian city of Neryungri showed men emerging from a stadium. Before boarding the buses, the men hugged family members waiting outside, many crying and some covering their mouths with their hands in grief. A man held a child up to the window of one bus for a last look.

In Moscow, women hugged, cried and made the sign of the cross at men at another mobilization site. A 25-year-old, who gave only his first name, Dmitry, was hugged by his father, who told him to “be careful” as they parted ways.

Dmitry told the Russian media company Ostorozhno Novosti that he did not expect to be called and sent out so soon, especially since he is still a student.

“Nobody told me anything in the morning. They gave me a draft notice to come here at 3 p.m. We waited for 1.5 hours, then the enlistment officer came and said we’re leaving now,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh great!’ I went outside and started calling my parents, brother, all my friends to tell them they are taking me.”

Western leaders derided Putin’s order as an act of weakness and desperation. More than 1,300 Russians were arrested in anti-war demonstrations on Wednesday after he issued it, according to the independent Russian human rights group OVD-Info. Organizers said more protests were planned for Saturday.

Putin’s partial summons was brief on details, so much so that the Russian military announced Thursday that it had set up a call center to answer questions. Concerns about a potentially wider draft sent some Russians fiddling with buying plane tickets t o flee the country.

German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser offered concrete support to potential deserters. She told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that anyone who “courageously opposes Putin’s regime and therefore puts himself in the greatest danger” can apply for asylum in Germany.

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In the Kremlin’s territorial annexation campaign, pro-Moscow authorities in four Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine are planning referendums starting Friday on whether to become part of Russia – a move that could widen the war and follows the Kremlin’s playbook from when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea- peninsula after a similar referendum. Most of the world considers the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to have been illegal.

Voting on the referendums in Ukraine’s Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions is scheduled to last until Tuesday. Foreign leaders have called the votes illegitimate and non-binding. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said they were a “hoax” and “noise” to distract the public.

In Luhansk, billboards appeared on the streets reading “With Russia forever” and “Our choice-Russia”, while volunteers handed out ribbons in the colors of the Russian national flag and posters reading: “Russia is the future. Take part in the referendum! “

On the battlefield, Russian and Ukrainian forces exchanged missile and artillery barrages as both sides refused to cede ground despite the latest military setbacks for Moscow and the strain on the invaded country after nearly seven months of war.

Russian missile strikes in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia left one person dead and five wounded, Ukrainian officials said. Officials in the separatist-held city of Donetsk said Ukrainian shelling killed at least six people.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, Deputy of Office of the President of Ukraine, said a hotel in Zaporizhzhia was hit and rescuers were trying to free people trapped in rubble. The governor of the predominantly Russian-held Zaporizhzhia region, Oleksandr Starukh, said Russian forces had targeted infrastructure and damaged apartment buildings in the city, which remains in Ukrainian hands.

The mayor of the separatist-held city of Donetsk, Alexei Kulemzin, said Ukrainian shelling hit a covered market and a minibus. Overnight, one person was killed by Russian shelling in Nikopol, across the river from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, according to Dnipropetrovsk’s regional governor.

While hostilities continued, the two sides managed to agree on a major prisoner exchange. Ukrainian officials announced the exchange of 215 Ukrainian and foreign fighters – 200 of them for a single person, an ally of Putin. Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, confirmed that pro-Russian Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Medvedchuk was part of the swap.

Putin has repeatedly spoken of Medvedchuk as a victim of political repression. Media reports claimed that before Russia’s invasion, Medvedchuk was a top candidate to head a puppet government the Kremlin hoped to install in Ukraine.

Among the freed fighters were Ukrainian defenders of a steel mill in Mariupol during a long Russian siege, along with 10 foreigners, including five British nationals and two US military veterans who had fought with Ukrainian forces. Some of those released had faced death sentences in Russian-occupied territories.

A video on the BBC’s news website on Thursday showed two of the released British men, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, talking inside a plane as they headed home.

“We just want to let everyone know that we’re now out of harm’s way and we’re on our way home to our families,” Aslin said in the video, while Pinner added, “By the skin of our teeth.”

The non-profit Presidium Network, which is helping to provide aid to Kiev, said Aslin, Pinner and three other Britons were safely home and reunited with their families on Thursday.

The continuation of Russian missile attacks and the beginning of a partial mobilization of Russians into the armed forces suggested that the Kremlin sought to dispel any notion of weakness or waning determination to achieve its wartime goals in the face of recent battlefield losses and other setbacks that undermined the aura of Russian military power.

A senior Kremlin official on Thursday reiterated Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory is attacked to heighten tensions.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said on his messaging app that strategic nuclear weapons are one of the options to protect Russian-controlled territories in eastern and southern Ukraine. The remark appeared to serve as a warning that Moscow could also target Ukraine’s western allies.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded on Thursday, urging everyone UN Security Council member to “send a clear message” to Russia that it must stop its nuclear threats in the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s neighbors have been on edge about a possible threat from Russia. Estonia said training exercises started Thursday for nearly 2,900 reservists and volunteers, in an apparent contradiction to Moscow’s announcement of a partial military mobilization.

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Andrew Katell contributed from New York.

Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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