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Military Assault in Ukraine Sparks Mass Exodus

Accusations fly between Kiev and Moscow as thousands rumored to be seeking asylum.
By Tova Dvorin
First Publish: 6/6/2014, 11:06 AM

Controversy and bloodshed continues in eastern Ukraine Friday, after a coordinated military assault on pro-Russian separatists in the region has resulted in at least one city reclaimed for Kiev - and rumors of a mass exodus. 

On Thursday, the Ukrainian military recaptured Krasny Liman, marking a rare victory for Kiev. As CNN footage shows, however, the battles have caused immense damage, resulting in the shelling of a local hospital. 

Meanwhile, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated Thursday that hundreds of Ukrainians have fled to Russia following the military assault, a statement Kiev continues to deny.

At least 4,000 people have already fled to Russia, Medvedev said - mostly women and children - requesting asylum.  He ordered government support for regions receiving refugees, which are "in a very difficult situation."

Sheer numbers, however, may support Russia's claims, according to the Wall Street Journal. In Rostov, which lies on Russia's southeastern border with Ukraine, officials told the Interfax news agency that temporary housing had been prepared there for 2,600 people.

Some statements predict an even higher exodus; on Wednesday, Russia's children's rights officials said that 7,000 Ukrainians had crossed the border into Rostov in 24 hours. 

Analysts say that the exodus proves that Ukraine's control over its borders is weakening, a claim Kiev denies. Ukraine's State Border Service said that there is no evidence of a mass exodus from eastern Ukraine - sparking even sharper criticism from Medvedev. 

"The Ukrainian authorities are refusing to see any humanitarian problems," he fired. "They are even speaking about the absence of refugees. It is a lie." 

But even Russian human rights experts doubt a mass exodus from Ukraine. One, Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Russia's refugee group Civil Assistance, told the Journal that the problem is overplayed for political reasons. 

"Of course there are refugees - they come to us because there is a war there," she said. "This isn't like Syria. It is 8,000 maximum."

In March, Russian border officials claimed that ethnic Russians were fleeing Ukraine en masse, at the height of the initial crisis in Crimea - with up to 143,000 filing asylum requests. But State television never showed footage of the refugees, with shrewd analysts noting that stock footage was used of Ukrainian traffic into Poland instead. 

Police brutality in the region is also on the rise. On Wednesday, a video surfaced allegedly showing separatist leader Igor Bezler taking hostages, according to the Financial Times - and threatening to kill them. 

Wearing military fatigues and armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, the man says, "If my man is not released in an hour, another two will be shot; in another hour and a half a third two." 

The legitimacy of the video is disputed, as allegations continue to fly back and forth that both the Ukrainian authorities and the separatists are guilty of grave human rights violations. 

However, well-known separatist leader Alexander Khryakov confirmed the incident to the Times late Wednesday, sparking furious recriminations from Kiev that Russia is supporting "bloody terrorism."