Frontline residents evacuated to Russian-controlled port before expected counter-offensive

BERDYANSK, Russian-controlled Ukraine (Reuters) - At a temporary accommodation centre in the Russian-controlled Ukrainian port city of Berdyansk children evacuated from towns and villages near the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces play outside on bikes as if nothing was amiss.

The minors, accompanied by at least one parent or guardian, were evacuated this month by Russian-installed authorities in Ukraine's southern Zaporizhzhia region - which houses Europe's largest nuclear power plant - ahead of a long-expected Ukrainian counter-offensive.

Yevgeny Balitsky, the Russian-installed acting governor of the region which Moscow has claimed as its own, said what he called the temporary relocation of people - and especially families with children - to safer areas was due to increased Ukrainian shelling of 18 settlements near the frontline.

Reuters was unable to independently verify Balitsky's assertions. Kyiv says it does not shell its own civilians, something it accuses Russia of doing, which Moscow in turn denies.

The Ukrainian military, which has vowed to carry out President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's order to drive Russian forces out of all Ukrainian territory, has accused Moscow of forcibly evacuating people from the area, something Russia denies.

On a visit to a temporary accommodation centre in Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov which is connected to the Black Sea, a Reuters reporter was free to talk to evacuees and Russian-installed officials.

Berdyansk has been under Russian control since Feb. 27 of last year, three days after Moscow launched what it calls its "special military operation" in Ukraine - a campaign that Kyiv and the West have likened to a brutal colonial war of conquest.

Three evacuees interviewed by Reuters said they had chosen to be evacuated themselves for security reasons. Two expressed satisfaction with their new conditions. All said they hoped to one day return home.

Lyudmila, 22, who said she chose to be evacuated from her home in the town of Kamianka-Dniprovska, said the situation there had sometimes been "difficult" and that shells had landed nearby.

"We used to go out and watch (the shelling). Especially at night, you could see the flashes as they launch (the shells). When it lands, (everything goes) red - we've had shells land nearby and when it landed the entire sky was red," she said.

"People get used to it fast, children get used to it. They stop being afraid."

As she spoke, she unpacked her clothes and hung some garments on hangars in her temporary new home - a room decorated with wallpaper with a TV on the wall.

While praising her treatment, she said she hoped to be able to return home one day.

"We want to wait it out. If everything is fine, we will definitely go back home. Everyone there has a house, a garden; our families and relatives are still there. My grandmother and mother, brothers and sisters are still there."

She said she thought people still remaining in her town were "sitting on suitcases" ready to leave if the situation there became more dangerous and said she was aware that fighting between the two sides around Ukraine's planned counter-offensive could thwart her hopes of resuming a normal life.

"If it (an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive) goes ahead there, then our town will suffer and maybe there will be no place to return to," she said, saying she was hoping for peace and that the two sides could find common ground.

Holding his family's small dog in his arms as he spoke, a man who gave his name as Artyom said he chose to be evacuated from the town of Tokmak with his wife and children as a precaution.

"(I decided to evacuate to) keep my family safe from all the events that are taking place (near the frontline). We are sure that everything will be fine, but we don't want to take any risks. When the opportunity arose, we left," he said.

Alyona Trokai, a representative for the Russian Movement for Children and Youth, which is working to help settle the evacuees, said around 2,000 people had arrived at the centre so far.

After being registered and undergoing a medical check-up they are given accommodation, three meals a day and other things they might need like nappies, baby food and clothes, she said.

A woman who gave her name as Natalia said she and her children were satisfied with the conditions and "couldn't complain."

On the seafront in Berdyansk, there were no signs of a country at war. Some local people cast fishing rods into the still waters while others strolled or walked their dogs in the shadow of the port's motionless cranes.

(Reporting by a Reuters reporter; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Daniel Wallis)