Russia says thousands removed from Kherson daily
Putin's offensive in Ukraine has dragged into its ninth month BULENT KILIC AFP

Moscow was pushing ahead Friday with a civilian pullout from the Russian-occupied Kherson region amid a mounting Ukrainian counter-offensive, with President Vladimir Putin saying residents must be "removed" from danger zones.

The Russian army said "more than 5,000 civilians" were being led across the Dnipro River every day, showing footage of soldiers directing lines of cars onto flotillas crossing over to the river's eastern bank.

Moscow's forces began urging civilians to leave Kherson in mid-October, vowing to turn the region's main city of the same name into a fortress ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian offensive.

Kyiv has likened the departures to Soviet-style "deportations" of its people.

"Those who live in Kherson should be removed from zones of dangerous fighting," Putin said on Red Square as he marked Russian Unity Day, a patriotic holiday.

"The civilian population should not suffer from shelling, an offensive, a counter-offensive or other such things," he said.

Western countries, meanwhile, have urged Putin to extend a landmark deal for the export of Ukrainian grain to avert a global food crisis, which is up for renewal on November 19.

Russia rejoined the UN-brokered deal on Wednesday, after suspending its participation for four days over a drone attack on its Black Sea fleet in Russian-annexed Crimea, but has threatened to pull out again.

On a visit to China, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged Putin to extend the deal.

"Hunger must not be used as a weapon," he said.

"I urge the Russian president not to refuse to extend the grain agreement which ends in a few days."

He asked China's Xi Jinping -- who has good relations with Putin -- to use Beijing's "influence" on Moscow to stop fighting in Ukraine.

"The Russian war in Ukraine is a dangerous situation for the whole world," Scholz said.

The G7 group of wealthy nations also said it wants Russia to prolong the deal that allows the safe passage of grain shipments from Ukraine.

Its top diplomats have held two days of talks in the western German city of Muenster, with Ukraine topping the agenda.

'49,000 new recruits already fighting'

In Moscow, Putin led patriotic celebrations on Unity Day -- a holiday he instated in 2005 to celebrate fending off a Polish invasion in 1612.

Speaking on Red Square to a handful of patriotic volunteers, Putin said 318,000 recruits had signed up since he announced a military call-up in September, which has since been completed.

That exceeded his target of 300,000 because "volunteers keep coming", he claimed.

Of that number, 49,000 were taking part in active fighting.

Putin's draft led to another wave of tens of thousands rushing to leave the country. Russia's ex-leader Dmitry Medvedev on Friday called them "cowardly traitors and greedy defectors".

The Kremlin chief said he wanted to restore historical monuments in the occupied territories so that those "who lived under crazy, idiotic propaganda for 30 years" would know "where their ancestors came from".

He singled out the port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, which was flattened by weeks of battles over its steelworks and fell into Russian hands in May.

"Mariupol is a very famous -- an ancient, you could say -- Russian city," Putin said.

He said Russian authorities had a "lot to work on" in reconstruction plans of the city.

Russia has recently hit Ukraine's energy networks, with President Volodymyr Zelensky saying the strikes have left 4.5 million people without power.

© 2022 AFP