Residents of Kherson boarded boats in an apparent evacuation as Russia claimed Ukraine was planning a major attack and President Putin declared martial law in four occupied regions.

Russian media showed residents of the city boarding ferries to cross from the right bank of the Dnipro River to the left.

The head of the Moscow-backed southern Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, said around 50,000 to 60,000 people would be evacuated over the next six days and claimed Ukraine was preparing ‘a full-scale offensive’ .

He also banned civilians from entering the area for a week.

Ukraine called the evacuation a propaganda and scaremongering stunt.

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Residents of Kherson reportedly received a text message telling them to “quickly evacuate” as “shelling of residential blocks by Ukrainian armed forces is expected,” according to an unverified screenshot on social media.

Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of local administration, also made a video call.

“I ask you to take my words seriously and interpret them as a call to evacuate as quickly as possible,” he said.

“We don’t plan to surrender the city, we will hold out until the last moment.”

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Russian forces in the area have been pushed back about 13-20 miles (20-30 km) in recent weeks and risk being pinned against the Dnipro River.

The head of the Ukrainian President’s office, Andriy Yermak, posted on Telegram: “The Russians are trying to scare the people of Kherson with fake newsletters about the bombardment of the city by our army, and also organize a propaganda show with evacuation “.

Ukraine’s recent counterattacks have recaptured considerable territory in the south and east and Russia’s new commander in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, described the situation in Kherson as “tense” and “difficult”.

A news blackout in southern Ukraine has added to speculation of a major counterattack, with Sky News analyst Prof Michael Clarke saying it means “something big is happening”.

Many residents of the city of Kherson, which had a population of around 280,000, have already fled to other parts of Ukraine or abroad.

The president made the announcements during a meeting with members of his security council

Kherson is one of the regions Russia now claims as his own after holding referendums that were condemned as a sham by the West.

President Putin on Wednesday declared martial law in those regions – which also include Donetsk, Lugansk and Zaporizhzhia.

Martial law normally means the military is in charge instead of a civilian government and normal laws are suspended, but so far the precise details are unclear.

The heads of the four regions installed by Russia were also given additional emergency powers – again, details were not disclosed – and President Putin ordered the creation of territorial defense forces.

A month ago, the president called up 300,000 military reservists, a move that caused long lines at borders as people tried to avoid being drafted.

There were fears that Mr Putin would close Russia’s borders to prevent men of fighting age from leaving, but he stopped short of that at Wednesday’s meeting with his security council.

Special event at the Imperial War Museum on the conflict in Ukraine

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