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A pro-Russian armed militant guards a checkpoint blocking a highway outside Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, on May 19. / Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP

DONETSK, Ukraine - Jews and other minorities in eastern Ukraine are worried they will become targets if their region gains autonomy and falls under greater influence from Moscow.

"Two months ago, we had a European style of life here," said Leonid Krasnopolkshy of Donetsk, where militants are fighting to secede and join Russia

"Now I can't find the words to describe what is happening," he says. "Russia has made our lives impossible."

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops taking part in military exercises near Ukraine's border to return to their permanent bases, the Kremlin said in a statement Monday.

NATO said it has seen no evidence of withdrawing troops, and fighting continued between Ukrainian troops and militants in Donetsk, which has large communities of Greeks, Azerbaijanis, Jews, Armenians, Georgians and Tatars.

Krasnopolkshy, a member of the Donetsk region's 15,000-strong Jewish community, says that community is in danger, given Russia's past treatment of minorities. He says he is considering moving away.

"I don't want to live in such a situation," he says. "I prefer to leave."

Many Africans and Arabs come here to study at the city's universities. Since pro-Russian separatists took control of the area six weeks ago, many are leaving or say they are considering moving away from the area.

At the campus of the medical university in Donetsk on Monday, some foreign students planned to return home, following advice from Kiev and their embassies.

Helia Namukwambi, 30, a medical student, said she would set off for her home in Namibia later Monday.

"They say it's not safe, we must leave," she said, adding that all Namibian students were told to return home before the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for Sunday.

Classes do not finish until June, so students might not be able to finish their courses or collect their graduating certificates.

Adiboayo Agboola, 31, president of the Nigerian Student's Union in Donetsk, has decided not to risk it. Despite his concerns about safety in the city, he is staying on.

"I am worried, but I have no choice. I spent more than six years studying, so I have to get my certificate," he says. "It's a risk, but I have to take it."

For the more permanent residents, leaving immediately is not so easy. Alexander, 31, is part of the city's large community from Azerbaijan. He works as a market trader and was selling strawberries Monday at the market in central Donetsk.

"It's quite dangerous here," he said, adding that he knows other Azerbaijani people trying to leave the region. He asked that his full name not be used out of fear for his safety.

He said he had considered leaving but worried it would be too expensive to move his four children. He hoped things would calm down.

Other minority communities are taking precautions. The synagogue and Jewish cultural center are guarded by armed men from a private security company. When pro-Russian separatists first took over the city, leaflets purportedly from the separatists were handed out to Jews outside a synagogue, telling them they must register as Jewish.

Friday, The Times of Israel reported a significant increase in the number of Jews from Ukraine applying to emigrate to Israel.

Another minority group wary about the future is the Tatars, a Muslim group that has lived in the area for hundreds of years.

Tatars in Crimea experienced persecution under Soviet rule when leader Josef Stalin deported the entire Tatar population - about 200,000 men, women and children - from the peninsula to Siberia and central Asia. Almost half of them died en route or shortly after their arrival. The surviving families weren't allowed to return to Crimea until the late 1980s.

At a mosque in the suburbs of Donetsk, the mufti of the area's Tatar community, Sheik Said Ismagilov, was worried.

"The people at the head of the Donetsk People's Republic are not tolerant towards other nationalities and races," he warned. "It could be very dangerous here."

Putin said he ordered 40,000 Russian troops near Ukraine's border to return to their bases.

NATO's Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, "We haven't seen any evidence of Russian withdrawal of troops, and I regret that."

Ukraine is set to go to the polls Sunday to elect a new president. Recent polling cited by the Kiev Post newspaper indicates that businessman Petro Poroshenko, known locally as the "chocolate king" for his interests in the candy business, is the clear front-runner.

Moscow has repeatedly said the results of that election will be illegitimate.

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Ukraine minorities worry as Russia claims troop pullout

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