STORY: The streets of the Russian-held port of Kherson in southern Ukraine were virtually empty this week. Shops and businesses shuttered, with a few final people evacuating, boarding ferries with suitcases and beloved pets in hand.
Russian-installed officials there have evacuated tens of thousands of civilians in recent weeks as Ukrainian forces advance to the north and east of the strategic city. And on Tuesday, Russia expanded the order, telling residents to leave a much larger region of Ukraine along the eastern bank of the Dnipro River.
Ukraine says the evacuations include forced deportations from occupied territory, a war crime.
But Russia, which claims to have annexed the area, says it is taking civilians to safety because of the risk Ukraine might use unconventional weapons.
In a post on Telegram, Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-backed head of the region, told people they are in danger.
"There are reports that the Ukrainian troops may use the dirtiest methods of warfare, which will undoubtedly affect civilians. There is also reliable information that Kyiv is preparing a massive missile attack on the Kakhovka dam."Kyiv says the accusations that it would use such tactics on its own land are absurd, and that Russia might be planning the actions itself.
Some in the area—like this shopkeeper—have refused to flee.
"Why should I leave my ancestral house? My ancestors lived here. My great-grandfather, my grandfather. They built this house with their own hands. Why should I leave?! Why? Please tell me. What for."
The region has become one of the most consequential frontlines of the war, with thousands of Russian troops staged in the area.
Ukraine's advance has slowed in recent days, with commanders citing wet and cold weather and tougher terrain.
Russia fired a huge volley of missiles at Ukrainian cities on Monday in what Putin called retaliation for an attack on Russia's Black Sea Fleet over the weekend. Ukraine said it shot most of those missiles down, but some had hit power stations, knocking out electricity and water supplies.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday condemned the attacks.
"With temperatures dropping these Russian attacks aimed at exacerbating human suffering are particularly heinous. As Ukraine works restore water and power to its citizens the United States remains committed to the victory of a sovereign and independent Ukraine, and we are working to deliver air defense systems so Ukraine can continue to repel these attacks."
Just north of Kherson, Russia fired four missiles into the Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv overnight, demolishing half an apartment building. Reuters saw rescue workers recover the body of an elderly woman from the rubble.