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Russian men join the exodus for fear of being called up to fight in Ukraine

ISTANBUL (AP) — Military-age men fled Russia in droves on Friday, packing planes and causing gridlock at border crossings to avoid being detained to fight in Ukraine following the Kremlin’s partial military mobilization.

10-kilometre (6-mile) queues formed on a highway leading to the southern border with Georgia, according to Yandex Maps, a Russian online mapping service.

Lines of cars were so long at the border with Kazakhstan that some people abandoned their vehicles and continued on foot, as some Ukrainians did after Russia invaded their country on February 24.

Meanwhile, dozens of flights from Russia — with tickets sold at sky-high prices — took men to international destinations such as Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Serbia, where Russians do not need visas.

Among those who arrived in Turkey was a 41-year-old man who landed in Istanbul with a suitcase and backpack and plans to start a new life in Israel.

“I am against this war and I will not be part of it. I will not be a murderer. I am not going to kill people,” said the man, who identified himself only as Yevgeny to avoid possible reprisals against his family left behind in Russia.

He referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal.”

Yevgeny decided to flee after Putin announced a partial military recall on Wednesday. The total number of reservists involved could be as high as 300,000.

Some Russian men also fled to neighboring Belarus, a close ally of Russia. But that carried risks.

The Nasha Niva newspaper, one of the oldest independent newspapers in Belarus, reported that Belarusian security services were ordered to track down Russians fleeing conscription, find them in rented hotels and apartments, and report them to Russian authorities.

Russian authorities tried to calm a public anxious about the draft.

Lawmakers introduced a bill on Friday that would suspend or reduce loan payments for Russians called to work. The media emphasized that conscripts would have the same status as professional soldiers and be paid the same, and that their civilian jobs would be kept for them.

The Defense Ministry said many people working in high-tech, communications or finance will be exempted from the call “to secure the operations” of those fields, the Tass news agency reported.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the fact that the Russians left their country to avoid conscription shows that the war in Ukraine is “unpopular.”

“What Putin is doing, it’s not coming from a strong place,” Jean-Pierre told reporters. “He comes from a place of weakness.”

The exodus unfolded as a Kremlin-orchestrated referendum was launched that sought to make the occupied regions of Ukraine part of Russia. Kyiv and the West condemned it as a rigged election whose outcome was predetermined by Moscow.

German government officials expressed a desire to help Russian men deserting military service and called for a European solution.

“Those who bravely oppose the Putin regime and thus expose themselves to great danger can apply for asylum in Germany on the grounds of political persecution,” German Interior Minister spokeswoman Nancy Faeser said.

The spokesman, Maximilian Kall, said deserters and those who refuse to be recruited will be granted refugee status in Germany if they risk serious repression, although each case is examined individually.

But first they would have to reach Germany, which has no land border with Russia and, like other European Union countries, has become much more difficult for Russians to travel.

The EU banned direct flights between its 27 member states and Russia after the attack on Ukraine, and recently agreed to limit the issuance of Schengen visas, which allow free movement in much of Europe.

Four of the five EU countries that border Russia (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland) also recently decided to turn away Russian tourists.

Some European officials see the fleeing Russians as potential security risks. They hope that by not opening their borders it will increase pressure against Putin at home.

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said Thursday that many of those fleeing “were fine with killing Ukrainians. So they didn’t protest. It is not correct to consider them as objects of consciousness”.

The only EU country still accepting Russians on Schengen visas is Finland, which has a 1,340-kilometre (830-mile) border with Russia.

Finnish border guards said Friday that the number of people entering from Russia has risen sharply, with media reporting a 107% increase compared to last week.

At Vaalimaa, one of the busiest border crossings, the queue of waiting cars stretched for half a kilometer (a third of a mile), the Finnish Border Guard said.

Finnish broadcaster MTV published interviews with Russian men who had just crossed into Finland at the Virolahti border crossing, including with a man named Yuri from Moscow who said that no “sane person” wants to go to war.

A Russian man from St. Petersburg, Andrei Balakirov, said that he had been mentally prepared to leave Russia for half a year, but put it off until mobilization.

“I think it’s a really bad thing,” he said.

Valery, a man from Samara on his way to Spain, agreed, calling the mobilization “a great tragedy.”

“It is difficult to describe what is happening. I feel sorry for those who are forced to fight against their will. I’ve heard stories of people getting these orders on the streets, it’s scary.”

Associated Press journalists Frank Jordans in Berlin; Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland; Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul.


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