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KYIV: Western countries accused Russia on Monday of plotting to use a threat of a bomb laced with nuclear material as a pretext for escalation in Ukraine, as Moscow evacuated civilians from a southern city in anticipation of a major battle.

With Ukrainian forces advancing into Russian-occupied Kherson province, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu phoned Western counterparts on Sunday to tell them Moscow suspected Kyiv of planning to use a so-called “dirty bomb”.

In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of France, Britain and the United States said they had all rejected the allegations and reaffirmed their support for Ukraine against Russia.

“Our countries made clear that we all reject Russia’s transparently false allegations that Ukraine is preparing to use a dirty bomb on its own territory,” they said. “The world would see through any attempt to use this allegation as a pretext for escalation.”

Russian news agencies reported that Russian military Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov and British Chief of Defence Staff Tony Radakin spoke by phone on Monday to discuss the allegations. In an overnight address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the Russian accusation was a sign Moscow was planning such an attack itself and would blame Ukraine.

“If Russia calls and says that Ukraine is allegedly preparing something, it means one thing: Russia has already prepared all this,” Zelenskiy said.

“So when today the Russian Minister of Defence organises a phone carousel and calls foreign ministers with stories about the so-called ‘dirty’ nuclear bomb, everyone understands everything well. Understands who is the source of everything dirty that can be imagined in this war.”

Asked about the fact that others did not seem to believe Russian’s accusations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a briefing on Monday: “Their disbelief doesn’t mean there’s no threat ... The threat is evident.”

EVACUATION

Russia has ordered civilians to evacuate territory it controls on the western bank of the Dnipro River, where Ukrainian forces have been advancing since the start of this month shortly after Moscow claimed to have annexed the area.

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