5 December 2023
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Russians in the border region of Bryansk were on edge Friday after Moscow accused Ukrainian combatants of killing two civilians in a rare cross-border incursion.

While some wondered how what Moscow called “Ukrainian nationalists” had even made it across the border, others said the region had been a tinderbox ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine last year.

Ukrainian authorities dismissed the reports as a “provocation”.

After Thursday’s drama locals went about their daily business, but tensions were palpable.

“We are afraid of everything,” Olga Ulyanova, a 62-year-old pensioner, told AFP near a market in Klimovo, a gritty industrial town that features a monument to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

AFP journalists could not visit the villages where the alleged attacks took place because a special permit is required.

“I live alone and I’m worried. The bandits might come, break down the door and kill me,” Ulyanova added. “Everyone is waiting for something and is afraid of something.”

Klimovo, which is home to around 13,500 people, is located not far from the villages of Lyubechane and Sushany, the scene of the reported attacks.

Oleg Poshlov, a 38-year-old librarian, compared the town in the southern region of Bryansk to a “tinderbox” but expressed support for the authorities. “We will never give up our country,” he added.

On Thursday, Moscow reported that a group of “Ukrainian nationalists” had crossed into the region of Bryansk, killed two civilians and wounded an 11-year-old child.

President Putin denounced the “terror attack”, but a different account was put forward in two videos on social media showing four men in military uniform claiming to be from a Russian volunteer group in the Ukrainian army.

The FSB domestic security service said the attackers had later been pushed back over the border and targeted with a “massive artillery strike”.

But locals said they had questions.

Elena Romanenko, 47, said the reported cross-border incident was concerning.

“This was very unexpected,” said Romanenko, who works as a packer at a grocery store.

She said she thought the Russian military had been “better trained and our borders had been better protected”.

– ‘Always tense’ –

Russia says its border regions, including Bryansk and Kursk, have been routinely shelled by Ukrainian forces since the start of Moscow’s assault, but the alleged incursion would be a rare instance of fighting inside its territory.

Romanenko said that despite everything she had faith in Russia’s air defence and that the town had seen “many fewer” hits recently.

“We believe that our boys will protect us,” she said.

Many locals were afraid to speak to reporters.

Some said they felt abandoned and said authorities needed to beef up security. “We don’t understand why there is no military in the city,” said a 66-year-old woman.

Another woman said she had packed an emergency suitcase and always carried identity papers in case she and her family had to “run”.

“We are always tense,” said the 47-year-old woman.

Even local authorities admitted they were concerned but insisted that life was returning to normal.

“Of course, the situation is a bit worrying,” Nikolai Samusev, head of the rural community of Novyi Ropsk, told AFP.

“We did not expect this to happen.”

Abdul Gh Lone