WARSAW/BUDAPEST (Reuters) -Hundreds of Ukrainians fleeing war with Russia started arriving in neighbouring central European countries on Thursday and the region braced for many more, setting up reception points and sending troops towards the borders to provide assistance.
The countries on the European Union’s eastern flank were all once part of the Moscow-led Warsaw Pact and are now members of NATO. Among them, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania all share land borders with Ukraine.
Russia has launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine by land, air and sea, the biggest attack by one state against another in Europe since World War Two. It has fuelled fears of a massive flood of refugees fleeing Ukraine, a nation of 44 million people.
Poland called for the “fiercest possible sanctions” against Russia. Czech President Milos Zeman, long sympathetic to Moscow, called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “madman” and Prague stopped issuing visas to Russians and ordered closure of two Russian consulates.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has also forged good ties with Putin, also condemned Moscow’s actions. He said Hungary would prepare humanitarian aid for Ukraine and was ready to receive refugees.
Ukrainians started trickling into Poland, home to the region’s largest Ukrainian community of around 1 million and the easiest EU country to reach from Kyiv.
Dozens were arriving at the normally quiet Medyka crossing on Thursday, some carrying luggage and accompanied by children.
Groups of people also fled into Hungary via the Beregsurany and Tiszabecs crossings, some coming from as far as Kyiv, a Reuters eyewitness said. Some arrived by car but many pedestrians were also hauling suitcases across.
Slovak customs officials said passenger cars were having to wait up to eight hours at the busiest of Slovakia’s three road crossings with Ukraine.
HOSPITALS ON STANDBY
Poland was preparing a medical train to transport wounded Ukrainians and drew up a list of 1,230 hospitals that could admit the injured, the health ministry said. The Polish army raised the level of preparedness of some units.
“We will do everything to ensure that every person who enters the territory of Poland has access to healthcare, including hospitalisation,” the ministry said.
Poland set up reception points for refugees near border crossings.
Slovakia also said it was ready to help refugees.
“Please let’s have compassion and understanding for them,” Prime Minister Eduard Heger said.
Slovakia will send up to 1,500 troops to its border with Ukraine and additional crossings will be set up, said Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad. Hungary has also said it will send troops to its border to help process refugees.
The governor of Slovakia’s eastern Kosice region, Rostislav Trnka, told Reuters around 2,000 beds and some 60 gyms had been prepared to help house refugees.
A Polish government spokesman said Polish diplomatic missions in Ukraine would remain open “as long as possible” but the foreign ministry urged all Polish citizens to leave Ukraine.
Hungary also said its embassy in Kyiv remained open.
The Czech Republic closed its Kyiv embassy but its consulate in the west Ukrainian city of Lviv remained open.
Germany offered humanitarian help to countries bordering Ukraine. German media have cited estimates that between 200,000 and one million people may flee to the EU from Ukraine.
FLIGHTS, TRAIN SERVICES SUSPENDED
The Slovak railway halted services to Ukraine, and budget airline Wizz temporarily suspended all flights in and out of Ukraine. Czech Airlines also suspended flights as Ukraine closed its airspace.
The Czech Republic, which does not border Ukraine but is home to 260,000 Ukrainians, also said it was ready to help refugees. Czech Railways offered rail cars with 6,000 seats and beds to help evacuate people if necessary.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians also work in Slovakia and Hungary, which has a large ethnic minority of around 140,000 living just inside Ukraine’s border.
Romania is ready to grant humanitarian aid if needed, President Klaus Iohannis said on Thursday. He also called for the “consistent consolidation” of NATO’s eastern flank.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said his country was preparing to evacuate by land more than 4,000 ethnic Bulgarians from Ukraine and was ready to host other Ukrainian refugees.
(Reporting by bureaus across Central EuropeWriting by Krisztina Than and Jan LopatkaEditing by Gareth Jones)